Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

THE LAST WORD: College by the Numbers

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

THE LAST WORD: College by the Numbers

Article excerpt

THE LAST WORD: College By the Numbers

When I was provost of the University of Michigan, the medical school had a student prize for medical diagnosis: the "S.S.W. Award." The initials stood for "swift, sure and wrong."

I am reminded of it when I hear reports celebrating Texas' "10 percent solution" -- its experiment in maintaining diversity in its public universities by guaranteeing admission for every student graduating in the top 10 percent of any high school in the state.

Attracted though we are to swift and simple solutions to national problems, this route to expanding educational opportunity for underrepresented minorities should be avoided by any university that has better choices.

Texas adopted the 10 percent solution only after an unfortunate federal court decision banned the traditional affirmative action policies its university had used successfully for years. California followed, taking up a 4 percent rule after a voter referendum forced it, too, to abandon affirmative action.

These guarantees may well be the best these states can do to help their universities maintain the diversity that prepares students best to participate in a pluralistic society. But now, Florida, with no constraint except the threat of a state referendum, has replaced affirmative action with a variation -- a 20 percent admissions system -- and other states will likely consider similar schemes.

The excitement over the simplicity of the 10 percent solution should not blind us to its liabilities. In the admissions process itself, the policy penalizes students at a state's more demanding secondary schools, where those in, say, the second decile often are better equipped for college than those in the top 10 percent at other schools.

And, by encouraging admission of less able students into more selective institutions, it may leave them struggling for survival in classes more difficult than they have been prepared to handle.

In high schools, the promise of automatic admission may be an incentive to some students to work hard. But others will be discouraged from taking the extra-hard course or enrolling in the more demanding high school for fear of jeopardizing a high class rank. …

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