The Magazine

Color Us Neutral

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By TERRY EASTLAND, FOR THE EDITORS
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WHILE THE NATION AWAITS the Supreme Court's rulings in the Michigan affirmative action cases, the Bush administration has launched an effort designed to stimulate interest in race-neutral means of enhancing educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities. The project has proceeded quietly, with the Education Department taking the lead. One must hope that the Court's decisions in the Michigan cases won't cut short this important initiative.

It began in March when the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights issued "Race-Neutral Alternatives in Postsecondary Education: Innovative Approaches to Diversity." The publication provides information on the various race-neutral programs that are being implemented around the country, without endorsing any particular one, the point being to make them more widely known and to encourage educators to consider them seriously, even to come up with new ones of their own.

In late April, the Office for Civil Rights followed up with a two-day conference in Miami attended by representatives of more than 100 colleges and universities, including Brown, Penn, Notre Dame, Baylor, Virginia Tech, Brigham Young, and Southern Methodist. Since then the office has continued to collect and distribute information on race-neutral alternatives.

The result has been to broaden discussion of this subject beyond where the Justice Department left it in its Michigan briefs. At issue in those cases are the undergraduate and law schools' race-based admissions policies. In arguing that the Constitution forbids "race-based policies when race-neutral alternatives are available," the Justice Department gave as examples of the latter the policies used by Texas, California, and Florida that guarantee admission to the highest-ranked students in each high school graduating class--the top 10 percent in Texas, the top 4 percent in California, and the top 20 percent in Florida.

Those policies--and their results so far--are spelled out in "Race-Neutral Alternatives in Postsecondary Education," and representatives of the three states discussed them in Miami. But the Office for Civil Rights is also publicizing socioeconomic affirmative action, which Texas, California, and Florida are using on a limited basis. Under this approach, as Richard Kahlenberg, author of "The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action," explained during the conference, preferences are extended to students who have performed well academically despite having faced various social and economic obstacles. In determining socioeconomic disadvantage, admissions officers take into account, among other factors, parents' education, family income, family structure, and school quality.

Both the class-rank and socioeconomic approaches operate at the point where students seek admission. Yet it is widely recognized that many students need help much earlier in their schooling if they are to have the skills, resources, and abilities actually to compete for places in good colleges--and then succeed.

For this reason, the Office for Civil Rights is also drawing attention to "developmental" approaches--such as "partnerships" in which universities work with nearby low-performing elementary and secondary schools. The University of California, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Vermont, and the University of Florida have partnerships with such schools. The partnerships take various forms, depending on the need. In some cases, the universities tutor and mentor students, and advise them about the courses they need to take to prepare for college. In other cases, they help schools devise curricula, train teachers, or even provide classroom instruction.

Another developmental approach involves the expansion of Advanced Placement courses. As "Race-Neutral Alternatives" points out, taking AP courses helps high school students in at least three ways: They may learn more because they are in more demanding courses; they may get higher GPAs as a result of taking AP courses, which sometimes carry extra points; and they may earn college credits. Unfortunately, many inner-city and rural high schools, if they offer AP courses at all, offer fewer than other high schools do. Texas and Florida have undertaken to change that, and the results so far are impressive. In Texas, student participation in AP courses has climbed by 57 percent since 1999, with most of the increase coming from schools that had never before offered such courses. And in Florida, the number of students in low-performing schools who are taking AP courses has increased from 4,000 to 7,000 in the past two years.