By John Lauerman and Janet Lorin
The U.S. Supreme Court's support of Michigan's ban on race-based affirmative action in university admissions may spur colleges to find new ways to achieve diversity without using racial preferences.
The court Tuesday upheld a voter referendum outlawing affirmative action at Michigan's public universities. At least eight states including California, Arizona and Florida already have halted preferences for racial minorities in college admissions. Opponents of admissions affirmative action are planning referendums in at least three states: Ohio, Missouri and Utah.
Public universities in those states are likely to turn to other admissions criteria that promote diversity in their student bodies without explicitly considering race. One route is to give preference in admissions to low-income students, since minority families tend to earn less than whites, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public policy research organization in Washington.
"They're pushing towards experimentation with alternatives," said Kahlenberg, who supports the court's decision. Affirmative action will move away from race and "towards socioeconomic status and percentage plans where you're automatically admitted if you're in a certain top percentage of a state's high school graduates."
Seven of 10 universities were able to maintain or increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students among their ranks by targeting socioeconomic inequality rather than using race preferences, according to Kahlenberg's research.
The Supreme Court voted 6-2 Tuesday that racial preferences were a legitimate subject to be put before the state's voters. The high court overturned a federal appeals court's earlier decision that Michigan had unconstitutionally stripped racial minorities of their rights.
Black enrollment dropped 33 percent at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from 2006, when the ban on affirmative action took effect, through 2012, according to the university's figures.
After a court decision struck down affirmative action in Texas in 1996, the state began guaranteeing students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class a place at the state university of their choice. That helped minorities gain admission because it limited the weight of standardized tests that dragged down some minority students' ratings.
The rule has been revised so that a smaller percentage of each graduating class will be guaranteed admission in the coming years. California adopted its own percentage plan in 1999.
Some schools, such Texas A&M University, have dropped preference for legacy children of alumni, who are more likely to be white. Some flagship state schools are allowing more transfers from community colleges, which typically have high rates of low-income and minority students, Kahlenberg said.
A California voter initiative banned the use of race in admission to public colleges and universities in 1996. To promote diversity, the University of California's nine undergraduate campuses use an admissions process called "comprehensive review." It evaluates applicants' academic achievements in the context of their life experiences and the educational opportunities available in their high schools, according to the university's website.
The University of California at Los Angeles takes "hardships or unusual circumstances" into account, as well as "linguistic background, parental education level, and other indicators of support available in the home," according to the UCLA website. In addition, California students in the top 9 percent of their high school classes are eligible for admission to a UC campus.
The University of Nebraska has continued to pursue student diversity at state colleges and universities even after a 2008 a ballot measure passed banning racial preferences in admission. Minority enrollment has increased at the University of Nebraska as a result of targeted efforts, some of which were in place before the ban, said Melissa Lee, a spokeswoman.
Minority enrollment was 13.9 percent in 2013, compared with 9.3 percent in 2008. At the main campus in Lincoln, minority enrollment rose to 11.4 last year, compared with 8.7 percent in the year the ballot measure passed, Lee said.
"The ban says I cannot use race, ethnicity or gender to make admissions and scholarship decisions," Amber Williams, director of admissions at the Lincoln campus, said in a telephone interview. "But it doesn't mean I can't reach out to communities and make sure these communities are aware that the university is welcoming. The more students I can get into my pipeline, the more students I can consider for admission."
Admissions staff begin engaging minority students in elementary and middle school and have hosted diversity conferences, Williams said. The school offers tuition assistance for low-income students and full scholarships for some promising first-generation and poor students, Lee said.
Like Nebraska, the University of Florida has been ensuring more diverse students by starting to talk with low-income, minority and first-generation students as young as seventh grade, said Zina Evans, vice provost for enrollment management and associate provost at the school.
About a quarter of the U.S. population lives in states that have banned racial preferences in state university admissions, Kahlenberg said. Most have been passed as statewide voter referendums, rather than through state legislation or rulemaking. A Colorado referendum lost narrowly in 2008.
Such-voter approved measures have allowed politicians to skate around the divisive issue of affirmative action, said Edward Blum, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"Most political leaders avoid frank discussion of the issue about the use of race in public policies, and that's a shame," he said. "In states that have voted to end these race- based preferences, many politicians - left, right, Democratic and Republican - have steered clear of expressing an opinion."
That may change soon as states including explore similar measures, said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Church, Va., a group that opposes affirmative action. More than three-quarters of Americans surveyed last year in a Washington Post-ABC News poll opposed considering race when selecting students.
New Hampshire passed a law in 2011 barring university admission based on race, sex and ethnicity. A bill in Tennessee would prohibit preferential treatment based on race in education and employment.
City and county governments that operate schools may introduce similar legislation, said Clegg, who has outlined a series of model bills that would compel schools to drop or disclose their use of racial preferences.
"I hope that all those avenues are pursued, along with federal legislation," Clegg said.