Should Diversity in Higher Education Be Determined by Politics?

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In 1996 Texas and California became the first states to do away with minority quotas in their university systems — California by referendum, Texas by federal court order. Instead, the states adopted a policy of accepting into the system all students who finish within a certain percentile of their high school graduating class. On Wednesday, in a report to Congress, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission gave this practice an official thumbs-down, calling it an inadequate replacement for affirmative action. But why should we care that a commission with no real legislative powers spoke out against a policy that exists only in three states (Florida voted in favor of a similar system last year, but hasn't implemented it yet)? The answer's simple: This type of policy appears to be the wave of the future in governmental attempts to assure ethnic diversity on college campuses.

In the past year, a half-dozen states filed inquiries with the Civil Rights Commission asking about the percentile approach; this prompted the investigation. The commission, which was created by Congress in the '50s, is often referred to as the nation's conscience on civil rights issues. Ethnic diversity on state campuses, meanwhile, is an area where states want to tread lightly, as few elected officials on either side of the aisle have taken issue with the policy goal of making a quality higher education equally accessible to all. The point of contention is over how to get there. But the chorus of affirmative action dissenters is undeniable, and now that federal courts have ruled against the practice, it seems only a question of time until more states ban it.

So far the percentage approach has managed to stay out of the presidential debates, but considering that two of the three states that use it are governed by men named Bush, it seems destined to become part of the election landscape, especially since polls list education as the most important issue to centrist swing voters. Just how big of an election issue this policy becomes could determine whether it's pushed to the forefront of state legislature debates in the coming year.

But it remains unclear which party stands to benefit from sounding off on the percentage issue. Neither George W. nor Jeb Bush have made much hay of it lately, probably because it's a racially divisive subject. The NAACP and Urban League are firmly against the use of race-neutral percentages — NAACP head Kwesi Mfume recently called the policy "Jim Crow Jr." What's more, this is just the type of center-hugging policy that could drive right-leaning voters to the Reform party come election day. At the same time, it is a difficult policy for Democrats to attack since it's had mixed results and has been praised by some respected pillars of the liberal media (including a major feature article in the New York Times Magazine last May) and some high-ranking Democrats.

The Civil Rights Commission ruling should help prod the parties toward a showdown. The commission voted 6 to 2 against percentage admissions along party lines. The two Republican members said the verdict was politically motivated — the panel's Democratic chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, has contributed to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, and, they imply, would like to damage George W. Bush's credibility.

The main argument for the percentage policy is that it levels the socioeconomic playing field by giving hardworking students from underperforming secondary schools a chance to get a college education. Proponents of affirmative action, however, argue that this approach removes minority students from the top state universities. In California, for example, minority college enrollment has remained steady under the new system, but has tailed off at top schools, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA, and in the most competitive graduate programs. This phenomenon is known as "cascading" — dropping large chunks of minority populations down from top-tier to medium- and lower-tier schools. But it also has its upside: Students don't require as many remedial courses to help them catch up with other students, and middle-tier colleges have upped their recruitment efforts in poor areas. They now woo a wider field of students from poor districts into the state systems.

These results have clearly raised the interest of many states. But unlike innovations in elementary education, such as charter schools and voucher programs, changes to public university systems happen to an entire state at a time — and that's a pretty big chunk of the population to experiment with. The problem is that the fate of this policy, which stands to affect so many, very soon, seems destined to be decided by cross-party bickering rather than reasoned debate.