The Supreme Court is poised to next week revisit the use of race in college admissions, and critics of affirmative action are hopeful the justices will roll back the practice.
A new report out Wednesday offers a big reason for their optimism: evidence the nine states where leading public universities don't use affirmative action have brought diversity to their campuses through race-neutral means.
That conclusion is vigorously disputed by supporters of race-based affirmative action, including universities in states such as California that cannot, under state law, factor race into admissions decisions.
The new report, by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and prominent advocate of class-based affirmative action, calls those states' race-neutral policies largely successful. The University of California and others say they have left their campuses inadequately representative of the states they serve.
Mr. Kahlenberg also acknowledges that highly selective universities such as UCLA, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan haven't recovered from drop-offs in minority enrollments after voters in those states outlawed racial preferences.
But in most places, the report argues, a combination of measures — aggressive outreach, de-emphasizing of standardized tests, affirmative action based on class instead of race, and even getting rid of legacy preferences that mostly benefit whites — has let minority representation on campuses statewide recover to previous levels.
Seven states have banned racial preferences in admissions outright — Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, California and Florida. In Texas and Georgia, leading public universities use a race-neutral system, though the University of Texas has maintained some use of affirmative action. It's that policy at UT that's now before the court in a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a rejected white applicant. Arguments are next Wednesday.
"It's the central question in Fisher: whether race-neutral alternatives will work" to raise minority representation, said Mr. Kahlenberg, who notes that the state data, compiled by Halley Potter, show they do.
At the University of Washington, for instance, black and Hispanic enrollment fell after the use of race was banned but has since surpassed previous levels. At the University of Florida, Hispanic enrollment is higher and black enrollment is comparable to before race was banned.
In Texas, diversity numbers plummeted during a period in the late 1990s when the university wasn't using affirmative action. The state implemented a "top 10 percent" plan granting automatic admission to top high school students based on class rank, and its enrollment of underrepresented minorities has risen overall.
The nearly 100 briefs filed in the Fisher case include several from social science researchers arguing that race-neutral alternatives don't work. In its brief supporting Texas, the University of California argues that when state voters ended affirmative action in 1996, it could not enroll a critical mass of black students, particularly the two most prominent campuses — Berkeley and UCLA.
California spent tens of millions of dollars expanding outreach, de-emphasized standardized tests and even implemented a policy similar to Texas' top 10 percent plan, the university told the court. In 1995, black students accounted for 7.3 percent of admitted freshmen at Berkeley and 6.7 percent at UCLA; the figures today are 3.9 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively.
"The University of California has tried almost everything" to recruit more minority students, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. "It's true the least-selective colleges of the University of California are highly diversified, but we've had almost a disappearance of black students here at UCLA."