The Beginning Impact of State "Percentage Plans" on College and University Admissions

Article excerpt

In Hopwood v. Texas (1996), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the use of race in admissions illegal in the binding states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Reacting to this decision, Texas, in 1998, created a "percentage plan" guaranteeing admission to students who graduate within a specified percentile of their high school class. Florida and California, states outside the Fifth Circuit where affirmative action policies have been struck down or challenged, have followed the lead of Texas and created their own percentage admissions plans. Although the consequences of these new admission policies are still uncertain, this article provides an overview of the current policy landscape, as well as early data hinting at potential outcomes of these new policies.

Under the 1998 Texas plan, any student graduating in the top io percent of his or her high school class is guaranteed admission to any state college or university. California and Florida also have adopted similar measures slated to take effect next year. California's plan will admit the top 4 percent of a high school's class to the University of California, while Florida's plan taps the top 20 percent for the state's public universities as long as a student completes a prescribed 19 academic units. Unlike Texas, both California and Florida do not guarantee admission to the institution of the student's choice, but rather one of the state's public universities.

Most recently, two states, Pennsylvania and Colorado, have debated the adoption of a "percentage plan." Pennsylvania abandoned its proposal after reviewing arguments offered by opponents of such initiatives. Pennsylvania is now considering a statewide standardized test to be used in a manner similar to percentage plans. In Colorado, Senator Bob Martinez has introduced a bill that would ensure admission to any University of Colorado branch campus as long as a student ranks in the top 20 percent of his or her graduating class.

Since the use of percentage plans is a relatively new approach for ensuring student diversification in higher education, little is known about the outcomes of such efforts. Only the Texas plan has been in existence for a time period sufficient enough to analyze the potential impact of using "percentages" for admitting undergraduates. The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&cM University are the two public institutions which have historically utilized selective admission standards. According to a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, that institution is enrolling as many minority undergraduate students today as it did prior to the Hopwood decision. In 1996, Hispanic students represented 14 percent of undergraduate students while black students accounted for 4 percent of the population. A review of 1999 enrollment figures suggests a negligible impact, with Hispanic and black students continuing to account for 14 and 4 percent of enrollment, respectively.

However, Mary Frances Berry, who chairs the US. Commission on Civil Rights, warns that these numbers cannot be taken at face value.1 Berry credits UT Austin's substantial "outreach efforts" to the institution's success in maintaining campus racial diversity. The acceptance rate, Berry asserts, may better gauge the plan's impact. In 1996, 65 percent of Hispanic and 57 percent of black applicants to the University of Texas were admitted. By 1999, the number of admitted Hispanic and black students had fallen to 56 and 46 percent, respectively. The admission of white students remained steady from 1996 to 1999 at 62 percent. Berry, therefore, concludes that "...the university now rejects minority students who would have been admitted under affirmative action and who, based on past experience, would have succeeded."2

Although it is difficult to predict how "percentage plans" in Florida and California will impact enrollment patterns in these states, critics contend that class-rank admissions policies will include many under-prepared students, while excluding many academically capable students. …