In recent years, voters and judges have blocked race and ethnicity preferences in university admissions in three big states with booming minority populations — California, Florida and Texas. Nonetheless, lawmakers devised a way to ensure that public universities remain open to black and Latino students.
The so-called "percent plans" promise guaranteed admission based on a student's high school class standing, not on skin tone. That, at least is the principle.
But the man who helped end racial affirmative action preferences in two of the states involved argues affirmative action is alive and well, simply under another name. Moreover, says Ward Connerly, a black businessman in Sacramento, Calif., who has been a leader in organizing anti-affirmative action referendums, the real issue — the decline in urban K-12 schools — is being ignored.
"Legislatures and college administrators lack the spine to say, 'Let's find the problem at its core,' " says Connerly, a former member of the University of California Board of Regents. "Instead, they go for a quick fix they believe will yield the same number of blacks and Latinos as before."
Even Connerly's opponents agree "percent plans" alone don't put high schools in inner cities and prosperous suburbs on an equal footing. "In some school districts in Texas, 50 percent of the graduates could make it here easily," says Terry H. Anderson, a history professor at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Some school districts are so awful that not one kid could graduate here, I don't care what race you're talking about."
All the plans — except at selective schools — ignore SAT or ACT scores (though students do have to present their scores). The policy troubles Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who champions "class-based" affirmation action. "The grade of A in one high school is very different from the grade of A in another," he says.
Texas lawmakers originated the percent plan concept after a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1996 (Hopwood v. Texas) prohibited consideration of race in college admissions. Legislators proposed guaranteeing state university admissions to the top 10 percent of graduates of the state's public and private high schools. Then-Gov. George W. Bush signed the bill, which includes automatic admission to the flagship campuses, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M.
In California, the impetus was the 1996 voter approval of Proposition 209, which prohibited racial and ethnic preferences by all state entities. Borrowing the Texas idea, California lawmakers devised a system in which California high school students in the top 4 percent of their classes are eligible for the California system, but not necessarily to attend the two star institutions, UC Berkeley and UCLA. (Students in the top 4 percent-12.5 percent range are admitted to community colleges and can transfer to four-year institutions if they maintain 2.4 grade-point averages.)
Connerly was active in the Proposition 209 campaign and was the key player — but involuntarily — in Florida's adoption of a percent plan. In 1999, Connerly was preparing to mount an anti-affirmative action initiative in Florida. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush worried it could hurt his party's standing with black voters — with possible repercussions on his brother George's presidential campaign. Instead Gov. Bush launched "One Florida," a percent plan approved by the legislature.
"The time has come to pull the plug on race-based decision-making," says Ward Connerly, a Sacramento, Calif., businessman who spearheaded anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives in Colorado, Nebraska and other states.
In Florida, the top 20 percent of high school graduates are guaranteed admission to the state system. To attend the flagship University of Florida at Gainesville they must meet tougher standards. All three states also require students to have completed a set of required courses.
Percent plan states also have helped shape admissions policies by experimenting with ways to simultaneously keep academic standards high, while ensuring at least the possibility that promising students of all socioeconomic circumstances have a shot at college.
In Florida, the consequences of maintaining high admissions standards at UF were softened by another program, "Bright Futures," which offers tuition reductions of 75 percent — or completely free tuition — depending on completion of AP courses and on SAT or ACT scores.
The effect, says University of Florida political scientist Daniel A. Smith, is to ensure a plentiful supply of top students of all races and ethnicities. "We have really talented minorities — blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans — because 'One Florida' in combination with 'Bright Futures' has kept a lot of our talented students in the state. We have students who turned down [partial] scholarships to Duke and Harvard because here they're going for free."
At UCLA, which also has maintained rigorous admission criteria, recruiters spread out to high schools in low-income areas in an effort to ensure that the school doesn't become an oasis of privilege. The realities of race and class mean that some of that recruiting work takes place in mostly black or Latino high schools.
"It's the fallacy of [Proposition] 209 that you can immediately move to a system that doesn't take account of race and that treats everybody fairly," said Tom Lifka, a UCLA assistant vice chancellor in charge of admissions. He said the new system meets legal standards.
Consciously or not, Lifka was echoing the conclusion of the most thorough analysis of the plans' operations in the three states. The 2003 study, sponsored by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, concluded that the states had largely succeeded in maintaining racial and ethnic diversity on their campuses.
But the report added that aggressive recruitment, academic aid to high schools in low-income areas and similar measures played a major role.
"Without such support," wrote Catherine L. Horn, an education professor at the University of Houston, and Stella M. Flores, professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt, "the plans are more like empty shells, appearing to promise eligibility, admission and enrollment for previously excluded groups but actually doing very little."