Ensuring Diversity in Higher Education

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

The affirmative action debate has been hanging around the collective heads of public higher education for the last three decades, with the debate coming to a head more recently with the impact of Proposition 209 in California and the expansion of similar legislative actions in a number of states.

Higher education has always had preference for a variety of students: gender, arts, and, most certainly, legacy students. But the aftermath of affirmative action has pushed colleges into a zone which requires the reconsideration of all activities that may suggest preference, especially regarding race and ethnic issues.

While colleges and legal analysts are focusing on what to do in the post- Hopwood world, some of us are still asking whether a move away from affirmative action was a prudent move from the beginning. Is it fair for society to move away from supporting students who have not had an equitable chance at the educational brass ring just because, in most terms, of their real estate?

Some states have experimented with alternative policies. The University of California imposed a “4 percent” rule that allows the top 4 percent of students in state high schools to gain access to the system, while Texas imposed a “10 percent” rule, with the same intent. There is little evidence to suggest that these measures have been effective. In fact, critics argue that it is unequal in other ways. For instance, because of the 10 percent rule in Texas, a student with an SAT score (knowing that the SAT is a limited proxy) of 1100 may get into the UT system while a student with a 1300 score may not, simply because of where they rank in their respective high schools.

In the end, do these measures do anything differently than affirmative action laws? Do they not provide preference based on race (because of geography) similar to that of original affirmative action regulations? This is a very complex issue and it isn’t incumbent on me to sell it as anything but complex. Both sides of the argument have prudent points. How does higher education, let alone the business world, help stop the vicious cycle caused to Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans from our societies inability to provide equal education under the law? Alternatively, where does affirmative action stop? Is there always a preference?

I don’t pretend to have any, let alone all of the answers, but today on EPILive we will have a discussion from two of the leaders in the diversity debate. Mr. Ward Connerly, the man responsible for Proposition 209, which in essence outlawed racial preference in California, will join us, as will Arthur Coleman, a lawyer with Holland & Knight in Washington, DC, who works with colleges and universities to help them deal with the diversity regulations. I expect an engaging conversation. Join us today at 1pm on EPILive.

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