As Justices Weigh Affirmative Action, Michigan Offers an Alternative

Anemona Hartocollisjan, New York Times, January 4, 2016

Kedra Ishop got results.

A year after Dr. Ishop began her new job here as enrollment manager at the University of Michigan–responsible for shaping the makeup of incoming classes–the university increased the number of minority students in the 2015 freshman class by almost 20 percent, to the highest percentage since 2005.

African-Americans gained the most. It was a significant change at an institution where minority enrollment plunged after Michigan voters banned affirmative action in 2006.

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Now, Dr. Ishop may be showing the way forward for many colleges as the Supreme Court considers a challenge to the affirmative action policy of the University of Texas at Austin, where she honed her skills. The case could result in a decision that applies narrowly to the Texas process, or it could take the bigger leap of ending the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

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The battle over affirmative action has been waged across the country as Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington have also banned the practice.

The results, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a public policy research group, have been mixed. Seven of 11 flagship universities in those states achieved as much or more diversity through strategies like guaranteeing admission for top graduates from each high school in the state, giving priority to low-income students, improving financial aid packages, stepping up recruitment and eliminating legacy preferences.

The main exceptions, the foundation said, were the three most elite universities: the University of Michigan; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Given the long-term trend, Michigan officials are wary of calling their approach an unqualified success. They say one year is not enough to consider the matter closed, especially after years of sluggish minority enrollment.

In a brief that Michigan filed in the Texas case, officials told the justices that the overall drop in minority enrollment since 2006 was a “cautionary tale” about the difficulty of choosing a diverse class without being able to consider race. They said that since the statewide ban, a panoply of recruitment and outreach efforts had fallen short. Using low income as a proxy for race also had not been effective, they said, because there are far more white students than black students in Michigan who come from low-income families and have the threshold test scores for admission.

And they said that even now, the overall numbers of minority students are still lower than they were in 2006: 12 percent down for undergraduates and 14.5 percent lower for professional-school students.

A major problem, the brief argued, is that other elite institutions draw on the same population of blacks and Hispanics that it wants to admit. On this point, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, agreed, but he said the problem was that just about everyone else has affirmative action, not that Michigan lacks it.

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At Michigan, Dr. Ishop has focused on maximizing the number of students offered admission who enroll, what educators call “yield.” At Michigan, the yield is close to 70 percent for in-state undergraduates, which hardly changed from 2014 to 2015; for all freshmen, it was 45 percent last fall, up from 41 percent in 2014.

After the 2015 freshman class was offered admission, everyone from faculty members to deans to alumni to students made personal calls to encourage students to attend. Student aid was increased and relabeled as “tuition” scholarships, because families were found to respond to that word more than to the dollar amount.

In addition, the size of the freshman class was cut, by 434 students to 6,071, and no one was admitted off the waiting list, which favors higher-income–often white and Asian–students, who can afford to put down a deposit to reserve admission at another college while they wait.

While the number of black and Hispanic freshmen jumped by a combined 23.5 percent, the number of whites and Asians fell. Black enrollment gained the most, rising to 5.11 percent of the freshman class from 3.84 percent the year before, a gain that though small, just 58 students, has been surprisingly visible, students said.

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