When President George W. Bush denounced the University of Michigan for maintaining a "quota" system for undergraduate and law admissions that was "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution," he clearly signaled his desire that the U.S. Supreme Court "end, not mend" affirmative action.
But if the high court does opt to close the book on affirmative action when it considers two lawsuits involving Michigan admissions policies on April 1, a critical question remains: Is there anything to replace this much-criticized policy?
The answer, say key higher education analysts, policy watchdog groups as well as a raft of newly minted studies, appears to be: not at present.
So-called percentage plans have been touted as the wave of the future in diversifying college populations partly because they are popular with Whites and conservatives and partly because court challenges have led to their being adopted in three of the nation's most populous states: Texas in 1998, California in 1999 and Florida in 2000. Indeed, the Bush administration made sweeping claims about their virtues in its "friend of the court" brief filed with the Supreme Court last month.
But if the current administration is looking for a race-neutral policy, notes Dr. Bridget Long, assistant professor in Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, percentage plans are a problematic choice. "The only way they can work in practice is if the high schools are segregated in ways that we've said over and over again that we're committed to ending," she says.
More importantly, the evidence is mounting that the plans simply don't work.
That case is made in three recently released studies--separate analyses of the Texas "10 Percent Plan," the Florida "Talented 20" program plus a comparison of the three percentage plans.
The first study, led by Princeton University's Dr. Marta Tienda, charges that "the ban on affirmative action had a chilling effect on the enrollment of minority students admitted to the public flagships, especially at (Texas) A&M University.
"Although Texas is rapidly becoming a `majority minority state,' the demographic profiles of the two public flagships"--University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University--"has failed to keep pace with the growth of minority groups among college-age students," according to the study "Closing the Gap?: Texas College Enrollments Before and After Affirmative Action."
The findings in "Appearance and Reality in the Sunshine State: The Talented 20 Program in Florida," released by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, are even more startling.
In contrast to Gov. Jeb Bush's claims that Talented 20 had "solved" the affirmative action "problem" in Florida, Dr. Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, writes, "there is simply no basis for the claim."
Noting a "striking disconnect between claims and data," Orfield called the plan "virtually irrelevant" as most of the students who went to college under the program would have gone anyway.
As for the tri-state report, Dr. Carol L. Horn, its co-author and a research associate at the Civil Rights Project, says that the "plans are clearly not effective substitutes for race-conscious admissions policies.
"They cannot be applied at national universities, private universities, or graduate and professional school programs, and they simply do not yield the levels of diversity that race-conscious admissions policies produce," Horn concludes.
Indeed, while percentage plans have been hailed as major alternatives to race-conscious affirmative action, the research reveals them to be riddled with problems and inefficiencies. The gains provided under them are, in fact, so modest that they require a variety of outreach, recruitment, financial aid and other support programs to maintain even moderate levels of diversity. …