Colleges are still waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on affirmative action in their admissions programs. A final decision is expected in the next two weeks.
As they wait, college and university officials are continuing to explore what they will do to enroll diverse classes in the likely event that Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lose their cases. Many already adopted test-optional admissions policies during the pandemic (and have kept the policies in place).
But two options, among others, are available to colleges that want to preserve diversity even if they aren’t allowed to consider race directly in admissions decisions. Colleges aren’t generally talking about these policies today (in public) out of fear that it could make it easier for the court to rule against affirmative action.
One policy is a state adopting a percentage plan. The other is increasing the enrollment of community college transfer students.
The first percentage plan was set by a law in Texas, signed by then governor George W. Bush in 1997, to allow every graduate of a Texas public high school in the top 10 percent of his or her class to get into any Texas public college, without any SAT or ACT score. The law was most significant for admission to the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, but it applied to all of the state’s public colleges.
The plan was developed in the wake of a decision in 1996 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to bar affirmative action in university admissions. That decision remained in place until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of affirmative action in 2003, but the 10 percent plan has remained in place, although the University of Texas at Austin succeeded in reducing the number of students admitted under the plan. It cited its inability to grow the university’s enrollment to accept all of those who qualified for the 10 percent plan and to still have the ability to admit others, such as athletes, whom it wanted to admit.
The plan has allowed UT Austin, Texas A&M and other universities to admit diverse classes, not only of Black and Latino students, but of low-income white students who live in rural parts of the state. And the fact that people in every high school benefit from the plan has been key to its popularity.
Of course, the plan depends on racial segregation in housing. Texas has some integrated areas, but many Texas high schools are monolithic: all Black, all Latino or all white. In other states, such as Michigan, where some officials considered a percentage plan after that state voted to bar affirmative action in 2006, a 10 percent plan wouldn’t work because the state is more desegregated than is Texas.
And there is the question of whether a state should rely on its segregated housing to promote diversity in higher education.
Plus, some scholars have questioned whether the plans work in truly changing the makeup of a university’s students.
A paper published in 2021 by the National Bureau of Economic Research by Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University and Daniel Klasik of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discussed the issues. Their findings are based on examining where students who enrolled at UT Austin and Texas A&M went to high school.
“We find that the Top 10 Percent Plan appeared to increase the likelihood that high schools from non-suburban areas of Texas sent students to the flagship campuses that had not previously done so. This result suggests an increase in geographic diversity; however, these changes did not amount to regular sending patterns and the population of students from these high schools was dwarfed in enrollment by the population of students from high schools with patterns of sending students to the flagship campuses that were well-established before the Top 10 Percent Policy began,” their paper says.
“In general, the high school sending patterns to either flagship campus, always-sending schools have the fewest free lunch eligible students (26 percent), the largest grade-12 enrollment (mean 230 students), the highest average SAT scores (26 percent in 1st quartile), and are also the closest to both UT and TAMU campuses (152 miles to the nearest flagship campus, on average),” they write. “Always-sending schools send over 2 percent of their seniors to UT and over 3 percent to TAMU. In stark contrast, never-sending schools have the highest percentage of free lunch eligible students (34 percent), the smallest grade-12 enrollment (average 26 students), the lowest SAT scores (7 percent in 1st quartile), and are the farthest from each of the flagship campuses (209 miles from the nearest flagship campus, on average).”
The inclusion of SAT scores points to a reason why states may not opt to do percentage plans. The recent move by many colleges to drop SAT or ACT requirements may make it possible for more colleges to admit more Black and Latino students. And, obviously, percentage plans may not work for private colleges, at least those at the top of the pecking order.
But an advantage of a percentage plan is speed. Once adopted, it does not require students to learn about it to have an impact.
Community College Transfers
If percentage plans focus on the students who at 17 or 18 are striving to get into flagship universities, community colleges offer different students. Many of these students are outstanding students, and those who are admitted to top colleges do well.
Some colleges have had notable gains in minority students by focusing on them.
Consider the University of California, Berkeley. Black enrollment there had been flat for several years, at 4 percent of new freshmen in 2018. (That number has since fallen to 3 percent, Reuters reported.) That’s the figure for the fall of 2018 as well, with 380 Black freshmen. But 221 Black transfer students arrived as well, and they account for 6 percent of Berkeley’s transfer admits, up from 5 percent in recent years.
Latino numbers have been going up at Berkeley in recent years, with their share of freshman admits going up from 20 percent to 22 percent in 2018, although critics have noted that the gains still don’t match the increases in the Latino population of the state. But here, too, the share of transfer admits who are Latino is not only going up but is higher than those being admitted as freshmen. The 989 Latino transfer students starting at Berkeley this fall make up 26 percent of the transfer population, up from 24 percent a year ago.
Those numbers may not sound large, but they are far more students than competitive private colleges typically admit. (And as advocates for community colleges point out, even those numbers could grow.)
However, many four-year colleges resist moves to let in more community college students. They say they have plenty of applicants for freshman admissions and working out articulation agreements is hard.
Whether colleges will embrace more community college transfers remains to be seen.