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February 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.


Colleges and Quotas

By Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington.

Ever since 1996, when California voters eliminated racial preferences in state college admissions by approving Proposition 209, universities have been on the defensive about their affirmative action programs. For years, university administrators claimed that in order to increase racial and ethnic diversity among students it was not necessary to lower standards or give preference to black and Hispanic applicants.

But once California banned such preferences, black and Hispanic admissions to the most competitive schools in the state dropped precipitously. Now, in order to reverse this trend, University of California President Richard C. Atkinson has called for eliminating the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as a requirement for admission to the nine UC campuses.

Such problems are not confined to high-profile schools like California's. As a study to be released today by the Center for Equal Opportunity demonstrates, racial preferences run wide and deep throughout public higher education.

Double Standards

CEO's study of 47 public colleges and universities around the country shows that the vast majority of schools use racial double standards in admissions: a higher one for whites and Asians, and a lower one for blacks and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics. More selective schools rely on preferences to a greater degree, but even second- and third-tier schools discriminate on the basis of race. The study's authors, Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, conclude that "racial preferences play a far more important role in admissions than has been previously acknowledged." Nor are these preferences minor, for example giving minority students the benefit of the doubt when their grades or test scores fall slightly below those of whites.

At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, median SAT scores varied by more than 300 points between successful white and black applicants, and grade point averages for the two groups differed by more than half a point. While most schools showed somewhat smaller differences, few universities in the study showed no preference for black or Hispanic students over whites or Asians.

Using a statistical method known as logistic regression, Mr. Lerner and Ms. Nagai were able to calculate the relative odds of admission of students at 23 schools based on their race. Of the schools examined, 15 schools showed large, statistically significant odds ratios favoring black applicants. The relative odds ratio favoring black over white students with the same grades and test scores at North Carolina State, for example, was 177 to 1; at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the odds ratio was 174 to 1; and at the University of Virginia, it was 111 to 1. To put this in some perspective, the relative odds that a smoker compared to a non-smoker will develop lung cancer are 14 to 1.

According to most public opinion polls, Americans reject such racial preferences, and some states have begun to scale back policies that confer advantage based on race or ethnicity. Voters in Washington, as well as California, have adopted a provision banning preferences in state college admission, employment and contracting.

What's more, plaintiffs have challenged racial preferences in court in Texas, Michigan and Georgia. A few other states -- most notably Florida -- have adopted plans to substitute procedures other than outright preferences to increase diversity. The public university systems in California, Texas and Florida now guarantee admission to all students graduating in the top portion of their graduating classes (the top 4% in California, the top 10% in Texas, and the top 20% in Florida). Nonetheless, neither Congress nor the executive branch has discouraged racial preferences in higher education, or anywhere else, over the last decade. If anything, such preferences are more deeply imbedded in federal policy today than at any period in our history.

No doubt President Bush would prefer not to have to grapple with this issue anytime soon, but he may have no choice. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is supposed to monitor whether colleges that receive federal assistance discriminate on the basis of race. If many do, as CEO's study indicates, should the administration simply ignore this evidence? The Department of Justice, moreover, has filed briefs in pending court cases supporting the right of colleges to discriminate against whites and Asians in favor of less-qualified black and Hispanic students. Will the Bush administration defend these arguments? And what about the federal government's own programs? Will the Bush administration require agencies to continue to give preference in hiring and promotion on the basis of race and ethnicity?

President Bush has said repeatedly that he opposes racial preferences and quotas, but that he favors "affirmative access." As governor of Texas, he promoted programs to close the skills gap between whites and blacks and Hispanics by offering more advanced placement classes in inner-city high schools and beefing up standards for graduation. He opposed "social promotion," where students advance to the next grade despite not having mastered the appropriate academic material.

These positions required a principled commitment to high standards for all rather than promoting "diversity" at the expense of standards. The president now has the opportunity to apply these principles on a wider scale by encouraging federal departments and agencies to come up with alternatives to race-based preferences in hiring, contracting and especially higher education.

To do so, of course, would be risky. The civil rights establishment will not take kindly to replacing outright preferences based on race with programs aimed at outreach and improving skills. But these groups will not be satisfied by anything short of total capitulation to racial quotas anyway. More importantly, the president has a real opportunity to do something meaningful to improve the genuine achievement of blacks and Hispanics.

Racial preferences in college admission can't make up for poor preparation or lower skills, which is why attrition rates among black and Hispanic students admitted through affirmative action programs are higher -- sometimes two to three times higher -- than for other students. Instead of encouraging colleges to admit minority students with lower SAT scores or abandoning tests altogether, why not insist that schools that receive federal aid create new pre-admissions programs aimed at preparing disadvantaged students to take admissions tests and improve their scores?

Disguising Failure

There are dozens of ways to help black and Hispanic students who may be poorly prepared for college, not least of which is to provide education vouchers so they can attend private or parochial schools if they choose. But there is little incentive to pursue such alternatives so long as racial preferences in college admission disguise evidence that many black and Hispanic students are poorly prepared to compete on an equal footing with white and Asian students. If he truly hopes to help blacks and Hispanics, President Bush will direct his administration to abandon racial preferences in favor of programs to improve skills. If he does so, he'll make good on President Clinton's unfulfilled promise to mend affirmative action, not end it.


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