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The U.S. Supreme Court this fall will hear arguments about whether colleges have the constitutional right in certain circumstances to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. The case has the leaders of many colleges that do consider those factors worried about what they will do if the court rules against the University of Texas at Austin, whose rejection of a white woman led to the suit.

But a report released today by the American Council on Education -- based in part on a survey of college admissions leaders -- argues that the high-profile debates over what should be considered in admissions decisions don't reflect the way most colleges actually go about diversifying their student bodies. A range of activities, many of them far less controversial and many of them race neutral, are at the heart of these diversity efforts, says the report, "Race, Class & College Access," by Lorelle L. Espinosa, assistant vice president of ACE's Center for Policy Research and Strategy; Matthew N. Gaertner, a senior research scientist at Pearson; and Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The report does not deny that many colleges consider race in admissions. For example, 60 percent of those surveyed and that admit 40 percent or a smaller share of all applicants said that they do so.

But the report stresses that diversity efforts are much broader, and that many of them are focused on outreach, not the actual admissions decision. For example, the survey found that:

  • 78 percent of colleges and universities use "targeted recruitment and outreach to encourage racial/ethnic minority students to apply."
  • 76 percent use "enhanced recruitment and additional consideration for community college transfers."
  • 71 percent report "targeted recruitment and outreach to encourage low-income and/or first-generation students to apply."

In the case of the latter two strategies, community college transfers and low-income/first-generation students include many minority students, but also include many white students.

The report also faults journalists and policy makers for focusing attention on strategies used by relatively few institutions. The ACE survey, for example found that:

  • 24 percent of colleges are trying to increase diversity through reduced emphasis on admissions preferences for the children or relatives of alumni.
  • 16 percent are adopting test-optional admissions.
  • 13 percent have "percentage plans" under which some top percentage of high school graduates in a state are automatically admitted to public colleges and universities in the state.

"If researchers, policy makers and the press want to align more closely with prevailing practice -- and we believe that they should -- then the focus of their attention and coverage will need to shift," says the report. (While this reporter is one of those who has written repeatedly about percentage plans, it might be difficult to avoid the topic when a central point of the case before the Supreme Court is whether Texas can rely on its percentage plan or needs to take additional steps to assure diversity.)

Another major theme of the report is that the choice colleges face is not an either-or between considering race or only relying on race-neutral strategies.

"Institutions that consider race in admissions decisions use other race-conscious and race-neutral diversity strategies more often and find them more effective than institutions that use race-neutral strategies alone," says the report. "Race-conscious and race-neutral approaches can and do coexist and are often used outside of the admissions decision."

The report praises "holistic review," in which admissions officers review applicants based on the entirety of their applications, and not based on any formula. That approach tends to be used at private, highly competitive colleges. But the report adds that there are other approaches that are working well to promote diversity, including "targeted recruitment and yield initiatives" focused on minority students, similar efforts focused on low-income and first-generation students, summer enrichment programs to help admitted applicants, and special financial aid awards for disadvantaged students.

The ACE study -- while praising the consideration of race along with other race-neutral strategies -- raises criticisms of other approaches to diversity.

For instance, while it notes that the Texas percentage plan has helped to promote diversity, the report stresses this may not work in all states.

"Campus racial diversity as an outcome of the Texas plan depends to some extent on racial segregation in Texas’s public high schools -- an inequitable and troubling scenario on which to base major admissions policy," the report says. "The segregated nature of Texas’s (and the nation’s) K-12 system in fact challenges the notion that any percentage plan is truly race neutral, as its proponents would claim."

And the report doesn't just say that legacy admissions preferences get too much attention -- it questions whether eliminating them would promote diversity. The report acknowledges the "highly symbolic" role of legacy admissions. But the report questions whether killing off this form of admissions would help promote diversity.

"Just doing away with preferences for certain groups does not inherently mean that preferences for desired others will emerge in their place. For example, reducing emphasis on legacies may simply mean there is more room for students with high test scores and [grade point averages]," the report says. "Deeper qualitative research is needed to understand the relationship between doing away with the consideration of legacies in admissions and greater student body diversity."

The report speaks favorably of many efforts -- including consideration of race -- to achieve diversity. But says more research is needed on various approaches, both to promote their effectiveness and to defend these strategies when challenged in court.

Whether the new report will shift public discussion of affirmative action remains to be seen. Edward Blum, one of the lawyers suing the University of Texas in the Supreme Court case, said colleges will not be protected by having many race-neutral strategies if they also consider race in unconstitutional ways.

"To the degree that colleges are using race-neutral means to increase student diversity and student cosmetic diversity, I think that the vast majority of Americans support that," said Blum, and so would the courts. "But the law does not permit just small amounts of racial classifications and preferences within a greater body of admissions policies. Racial discrimination is racial discrimination," he said.

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