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Alternatives Emerge To Affirmative Action


Earlier this week, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan's ban on the consideration of race in admissions to the public universities. That ban was a ballot measure to pass by Michigan voters in 2006.

To discuss the court's decision, we reached Mark Long, an associate professor of Public Affairs at the University of Washington who studies affirmative action.

Fifty-eight percent of voters in Michigan, you know, voted to ban affirmative action as a way to do admissions at the University of Michigan. Can you give me a sense for, in general, why people, you know, or a good number of people are not comfortable with that?

MARK LONG: People are very conscious of the fact that they want to have the world that is not conscious of race, that they want to believe that it's possible to not take race into consideration and have a world with social equity. So I think it's an aspiration.

GREENE: Many people to prioritize diversity on college campuses, and we spoke to Mark Long about some of the alternatives models out there for achieving that.

LONG: First, some of the states, most notably in Texas, they have instituted a top X-percent programs. So, for example, in Texas, the top 10 percent of all high school students are automatically admitted into any of the universities in Texas, more or less.

GREENE: Ah, so this does not mean the top 10 percent performing students in the entire state. This means that each high school, the top 10 percent of students will get in. So if it's a diverse high school, it's a mostly black high school, mostly Latino high school, mostly white high school, 10 percent of the students will get into the state universities.

LONG: Yes. The idea is that you have some level of segregation existing in high schools. So if you admit the top 10 percent of each high school, you'll get a more diverse set of admitted students. That's one method that's tried. The other method is by changing the weights placed on various applicant characteristics. So there's been a lot of talk of increasing a weight placed on socioeconomic status, you know, giving low income students a higher likelihood of being admitted. And the premise behind that is there's a correlation between being low income and being an underrepresented minority. So by admitting more low income students, the theory is that they will then admit more underrepresented minority students.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

LONG: And the third is direct attempts to recruit minority applicants. So, for example, going to high schools that have a high number of underrepresented minority students and sending college representatives to those high schools.

GREENE: And the third option you're talking about, the outreach.

LONG: Yeah.

GREENE: I mean that would be scholarship programs that might go specifically to populations where there are a lot of minorities, but you're not making - bringing in minorities the explicit reason for those scholarships.

LONG: Right. So for example, in Texas, the Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship at the University of Texas is given to students at particular high schools and those particular high schools were chosen on the basis of having a low sending rate of students to the University of Texas. And those high schools happen to also have high percentages of minority students.

GREENE: Do these alternate models accomplish the same things in terms of the number of minorities on college campuses that affirmative action accomplishes?

LONG: Well, a large share of my research over the past 10 years has been trying to answer that question. And the basic answer is that they are partially helpful, but they are not fully effective in restoring the minority share that would've been admitted under affirmative action. So for example, one of the things that we found - myself with Marta Tienda at Princeton...

GREENE: This is your co-researcher?

LONG: Yes. We found that the top 10 percent policy by itself led to a rebound at the University of Texas, 41 percent of the minority share that was lost by eliminating affirmative action. To put it bluntly, nothing proxies for race like race. So, I have a current working paper where I am trying to look at how much weight you'd need to place on other characteristics to gain the same minority composition. And what I find is that if you take the factors that are correlated with race and you place weight on them, you'd have to put four times as much weight on those correlated indicators as you would've had to place directly on race in affirmative action to get the same minority composition.

GREENE: Some suggest that a lot of energy should be poured into looking at the underlying problems for why there are not as many minorities on college campuses as some would like there to be. I mean, underperforming schools, schools that don't have a lot of resources and don't have a lot of money and tend to be places where there are less affluent students - minority students. I mean, is there an argument that there should be a lot more focus some of the deeper problems and less on some of the sorts of models and programs that we're talking about?

LONG: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree with that prospective. So, the problem of minority enrollment in colleges is much more so a problem of qualification than it is a problem of what the universities do in their admissions decisions. So, reducing test score gaps, increasing aspirations and increasing the ability of students to make a successful transition into college - which is partially financial aid, but also partially just understanding how to go to college - these are far more important aspects to increasing minority representation.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to Mark Long. He's an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Washington. Thanks so much for talking to us.

LONG: I really enjoyed being here. Thank you very much.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR' News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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