Studies Critique Admission Plan

With High Court set to hear cases, study supports affirmative action

With less than a week remaining for the University to file its friend-of-the-court brief in two affirmative action cases set to appear before the Supreme Court in April, Harvard’s Civil Rights Project (CRP) has released two studies criticizing the use of a percent plan in college admissions.

The percentage plans, which some state universities use to automatically admit high-ranking high school students, have been cited by President Bush as an alternative to race-based affirmative action admissions policies.

Twenty-five years after the landmark Bakke vs. the Regents of the University of California case, which allowed universities to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions, the Supreme Court will hear arguments this spring in a pair of cases against the University of Michigan that challenge its undergraduate and law school admissions policies.

University President Lawrence H. Summers spoke at yesterday’s Faculty meeting about the brief which Harvard will file by the Feb. 18 deadline, citing “the important and compelling interest in diversity” as the brief’s prevailing theme.

Summers alluded to the need to consider race as a factor in admissions when he spoke at yesterday’s faculty meeting.

“Our brief will go to some length to show that you cannot achieve racial objectives with non-racial means,” he said at the Faculty meeting.

Summers criticized alternatives to race-conscious admissions programs.

“Such mechanisms sacrifice the critical ability to judge individuals as individuals...as excellent and as contributing to an excellent education,” Summers said.

But Bush, whose administration submitted a brief last month arguing that the Court should declare the Michigan policies unconstitutional without reversing the Bakke decision, has been a strong advocate for the percent plans, instituted in Texas when he was the state’s governor.

In the two studies released Friday by the CRP—“Appearance and Reality in the Sunshine State: The Talented 20 Program in Florida” and “Percent Plans in College Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Three States’ Experiences”—the authors conclude that the percent plans fail to achieve the same level of diversity as affirmative action programs.“I think what these studies show is the level of debate on certain constitutional issues is very primitive,” said Professor of Education and Social Policy Gary A. Orfield, who wrote the forewords for the new studies. “A relatively small research project could discover some very important things.”

The Plans

Under the system currently used in Texas, students ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class, based on grade point average, are guaranteed admission to the Texas state school of their choice.

Florida’s “Talented 20 Program” guarantees admission to the state university system for the top 20 percent of each public high school class in the state. Unlike the Texas program, students in Florida are not guaranteed admission to the campus of their choice.

A California plan offers admission to the top 12.5 percent and 33 percent of the each high school’s graduating class at the University of California and California State University systems, respectively.

Former University President Derek C. Bok criticized the Bush plan—which suggests these percent programs as alternatives to using race as a factor in admission. He said the percent plans were irrelevant to private universities like Harvard and to professional schools.

Bok, who in 1998 co-authored The Shape of the River, a book defending affirmative action in higher education, added that a percent plan completely contradicts Harvard’s admissions policy.

“It’s an anathema to a place like Harvard. If Harvard said, ‘you have to finish in the top quarter of a percent of your high school class,’ imagine the student body,” Bok said. “It would be a much less interesting class than the one we have.”

The Studies

In its in-depth look at Florida’s program, the CRP report states that the program has not been very effective in ensuring diversity.

“There is simply no basis for the claim that Florida’s Talented 20 Program solved the affirmative action issue. In fact, this report indicates the percent plan was virtually irrelevant,” Orfield wrote in the foreword of the report, which was authored by research associates Patricia Marin and Edgar K. Lee.

The report concludes that “the minimal success of the plan relies on race-attentive recruitment, retention and financial aid policies.”

The second study, conducted by research associates Catherine L. Horn and Stella M. Flores, concluded that percent plans, even when supplemented by other race-conscious procedures, do not offer an effective alternative to considering race and ethnicity in admissions.

But Gloria White, deputy assistant commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, stressed the importance of looking at all of the initiatives the state is taking to ensure diversity beyond the 10 percent plan.

“None of us in Texas thought it would be the only thing done to achieve diversity,” White said, citing other Texas initiatives which aim to complement the percent plan, including a state scholarship program and increased minority recruiting efforts.

Looking Ahead

With the Supreme Court scheduled to hear the Michigan cases in April, the CRP studies will likely factor into the debate—particularly since Bush has expressed his plans to emphasize the percent plan as an alternative to the University of Michigan policies.

“The work of the Civil Rights Project has been used in court cases before,” said Horn, who co-authored one of the reports.

“I think it’s every researcher’s hope that their work is useful in some practical way.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellero contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Jenifer L. Steinhardt can be reached at steinhar@fas.harvard.edu.