Jessica Perlo arrived at Northwestern University two weeks early, one of 32 freshmen eager to get a jump-start on college by participating in writing workshops, campus tours and meetings with student organizations.
Launched during the Civil Rights movement, the orientation program was long reserved for minority students—not for whites such as Perlo, 18, who said she was lucky to get a chance to attend.
“Any other year, I wouldn’t be here,” said Perlo, of Woodland Hills, Calif., one of the first non-minority students to participate in the 38-year-old Summer Academic Workshop. “You get to know the campus early so when school starts, I’m not lost.”
Throughout the country, schools such as Northwestern are opening up minority scholarships, fellowships, academic support programs and summer enrichment classes to students of any race.
The change follows last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that race can be considered in college admissions but only among other factors and that each candidate must be evaluated individually. That landmark 5-4 decision, hailed as a victory by college and university officials, preserved affirmative action in admissions, but found unconstitutional a University of Michigan program that automatically gave extra points to African-American, Latino and American Indian applicants.
In what some now say is an unexpected erosion of affirmative action, colleges are interpreting the ruling to mean they can no longer offer race-exclusive programs designed specifically to help minority students.
Critics of the trend to eliminate such programs argue that they remain constitutional because the court decision only addressed admissions. But some college officials, worried about potential lawsuits, are taking a different stance.
At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., for example, an orientation program for minority freshmen, along with two research fellowships, has been opened to all students. Two undergraduate scholarships once restricted to minority students at the University of Michigan are offered to anyone who adds to “the overall excellence and diversity of the university community.”
And at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a program for minority engineering students that provided internships, scholarships and tutoring was renamed and broadened to include non-minority students.
“Everybody has seen pretty clearly that the court is frowning on programs that are 100 percent race based,” said Stephen Fischer, Northwestern’s associate provost for undergraduate education.
Of the students who participated in the university’s early orientation program this year, five were white or Asian.
There is concern that including other groups in orientation programs will make it harder to create an early comfort zone for minority students, an original goal of the program, Fischer said. “There is a little bit of a loss in terms of social networking that can be accomplished,” he said.
Elise Boddie, education director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, disagrees that the court ruling requires universities to abandon minority-only programs. She worries that schools have begun to relinquish their support of affirmative action programs despite a shortage of minority students at many of the nation’s campuses.
“These programs have been critical to opening up doors of opportunity for students of color,” said Boddie who is concerned that schools “may be sending unwelcoming signals to minority students.”
Sharon Jones, president of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, said universities are unnecessarily caving in to legal threats.
“Nothing requires the schools to get rid of those programs,” said Jones, who wrote a legal brief to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan. “However, you have to be willing to be sued, litigate it and spend a lot of money to win. And a lot of institutions aren’t willing to.”
All of this is being hailed as good news by affirmative action critics such as the Center for Equal Opportunity in Virginia. Early last year, the conservative advocacy group began sending letters to about 100 colleges, threatening to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights if their race-exclusive programs weren’t changed.
“The point the court emphasized was individualized consideration,” said Roger Clegg, the center’s vice president and general counsel. “A program where a student is not allowed to participate for no other reason than skin color is not providing individualized consideration.”
One of the group’s letters targeted a minority engineering project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That project, formerly called the Minority Engineering Program, was altered this summer and renamed the Morrill Engineering Program.
The 30-year-old program provided academic tutoring and helped minority students forge relationships with companies by offering internships and scholarships.
Now administrators of the program have been told by university officials that they can’t limit their recommendations to minority students.
“The minority students are not going to be funded,” said Paul Parker, assistant dean for academic programs in the College of Engineering, who also said there could be a drop in the college’s 8 percent minority enrollment.
Even when programs are open to students of all races and ethnicities, the types of students who choose to participate may not change. At Yale University, a weeklong orientation program that focused on racial and ethnic identity included non-minority students for the first time this summer, but only one of the 97 participants was white, said spokeswoman Gila Reinstein.
Many school administrators are looking to see what happens at the University of Michigan, which defended its undergraduate and law school affirmative action admissions policies before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some Michigan programs will continue, including speaking engagements and other outreach efforts at Detroit high schools aimed at African-American and Latino students. But officials continue to review and change the university’s scholarships, recruiting efforts and academic support programs, said University of Michigan attorney Jonathan Alger.
Colleges appear most reluctant to reduce minority-targeted scholarships and financial aid that could make a difference in whether a student picks a particular school. At Michigan, for example, administrators increased the number of total awards rather than risk not serving minority students because of a larger applicant pool.
“What schools have done is expand the criteria so many of the same people are now included but it is not race-exclusive. Many of these achieve the same ends,” said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a Washington organization representing 1,800 college and university administrators.
Some colleges have not decided whether to change their practices, including the University of Illinois at Chicago, where a committee is reviewing programs that may be legally questionable, said spokesman Mark Rosati.
Other campuses intend to defend their programs, at least for now.
Swarthmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges in Pennsylvania continued their jointly run minority freshman program this summer for about 75 students who arrived on campus a few days early for leadership training and to learn about academic and extracurricular programs. The goal is to “prepare them for some of the challenges of being non-white in the white-majority context,” said Swarthmore spokesman Tom Krattenmaker.
“That is among the programs we are reviewing to make sure they are not in violation,” said Maurice Eldridge, Swarthmore’s vice president of college and community relations. “I don’t think one has to automatically assume that because there is tension in this area, that one is automatically doing something wrong.”
But where programs have changed, students and administrators are waiting to see how the changes will affect campus life.
At Northwestern, about 120 of the 1,000 freshmen in the Arts and Sciences school were invited to this year’s early orientation program. Instead of sending invitations to every African-American, Latino and American Indian student as in years past, officials invited students who they thought could use extra help in writing.
“I’m glad it’s open to everyone,” said Lindsey White, a biracial student from Minnesota, “What we can learn is beneficial to everyone.”