Yes, Your Race Still Matters

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As students primp and preen to wow their favorite colleges, there's one characteristic they can't control: their race. That's one reason voters, courts and politicians in six states have outlawed racial preferences in college admissions, while other colleges, fearful of lawsuits, play down their affirmative action efforts these days. But make no mistake: race still matters. How much depends on the school and the state.

In Texas public universities have managed to counteract the effect of racial-preference bans by automatically admitting the top 10% of the graduating class of every high school, including those schools where most students are minorities. But Rice University in Houston, private and highly selective, has had to reinvent its admissions strategies to maintain the school's minority enrollment. Each February, 80 to 90 black, Hispanic and Native American kids visit Rice on an expenses-paid trip. Rice urges counselors from high schools with large minority populations to nominate qualified students. And in the fall, Rice sends two recruiters on the road to find minority applicants; each recruiter visits about 80 predominantly black or Hispanic high schools. Two weeks ago, Rice recruiter Tamara Siler dropped in on Westlake High in Atlanta, where 99% of the 1,296 students are black. Siler went bearing literature and advice, and though only two kids showed up, she said, "I'm pleased I got two."

Rice has also resorted to some almost comical end-runs around the spirit of the law. The university used to award a yearly scholarship to a Mexican-American student; now it goes to a student who speaks Spanish really well. Admissions officers no longer know an applicant's race. But a new essay question asks about each student's "background" and "cultural traditions." When Rice officials read applications, they look for "diverse life experiences" and what they awkwardly call "overcome students," who have triumphed over hardship.

Last spring, admissions readers came across a student whose SAT score was lower than 1,200 and who did not rank in the top 10% of her class. Numerically speaking, she lagged far behind most accepted applicants. But her essay and recommendations indicated a strong interest in civil rights and personal experience with racial discrimination. She was admitted. "All the newspapers say affirmative action is done," says a veteran counselor at a large New York City high school. "But nothing has changed. I have a (minority) kid at Yale with an SAT score in the high 900s."

While minority admissions at the University of California system overall have dipped only slightly since a ban on affirmative action took effect in 1998, they have plummeted at the most selective campuses. At Berkeley, for example, the class entering this fall included 608 Chicano students, vs. 1,013 in 1997. In response, the Úlite schools have moved aggressively to recruit at minority high schools — and even to improve the performance of students who are graduating from them. This year, the U.C. system will spend $250 million on outreach: from installing tutors at low-income schools to inviting high school teachers to summer calculus seminars.

— Reported by Flora Tartakovsky/Houston and David Nordan/Atlanta