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Scales tip away from affirmative action

Guest author

Three states have figured out a way to increase college admissions for minorities without depending on traditional affirmative action programs.

Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has proposed that the top 20 percent of high-school graduates be automatically admitted to public colleges and universities. In California, the students in the top 4 percent of each high school graduating class now gain admission to the University of California.

In Texas, the top-ranking 10 percent of every graduating class is being admitted to any of the public campuses they prefer.

In an illuminating Nov. 24 New York Times article, Jodi Wilgoren includes a number of questions about the future of this approach, which other states are considering.

In Texas, the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in freshman classes on most of the selective campuses has increased. And this year, 4.1 percent of those enrolled at the demanding University of Texas at Austin were black students the same as in 1996, when a race and ethnicity-based affirmative-action program was in place. Hispanic enrollment is close to the 1996 level.

As Wilgoren notes, rural white students, many of whom had found selective campuses beyond their reach, have benefited from the Texas program. I suspect that poor and working-class white youngsters in the cities have benefited as well.

A question not sufficiently emphasized in the article, however, is what happens to the 90 percent left in high schools with low-level courses and underachieving teachers? Will those students continue to believe they are incapable of gaining admission to top-ranking colleges or any college?

Some of the 10 percenters in Austin are facing the unsettling fact that they were poorly prepared. Says one student: “All the stuff I should have done in high school, I’m doing now. … It’s a humbling experience. I never felt slow or dumb before.”

On the other hand, he and some of the other challenged students may well make the grade especially those in new smaller classes at the huge, 49,000-student Austin campus. One example is a class in which 50 pre-medical students whose SAT scores average 200 points below the university average get intensive instruction and seminars in study skills.

David Laude, who is in charge of this targeted group, says: “If I see even a hint of a student having a problem, if somebody does badly on a quiz, I call them into my office.”

There should be more such smaller, individualized classes, but they’re expensive. “We just can’t afford it,” a dean ruefully says.

But in only a few public schools I have reported on from elementary grades on up is it a standard practice to be on top of each student’s progress, or lack of it. I knew an elementary-school principal in Brooklyn, N.Y., who had progress reports on every student in the school on his desk, but I have not met another like him.

While there will be 10 percenters who get their degrees and go on to graduate schools (which are not included in the 10 percent program), some will keep on feeling “dumb” if colleges in Texas, California and Florida do not provide the money and resources to make up for miseducation in the lower schools.

In Texas, the 10 percenters get in regardless of their scores on standardized tests. How they do in the next four years may provide answers to whether the increasingly criticized SAT scores actually do predict success in college.

But without more small classes specifically geared for students who need to make up for what they didn’t get in high school, there will be no clear answer to the predictability of SAT scores in any of the three states.

Toward the end of Jodi Wilgoren’s article, there is an augury of what can happen to make students of all backgrounds succeed. At the Austin campus, calculus professor Phillip Uri Treisman is in charge of a center conducting research on how to get college administrators involved in learning how to educate teachers and principals from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

This is already happening in California after traditional affirmative action was struck down by the voters. Why do colleges and universities around the country have to wait for the courts or the voters to reach out and down?

The automatic admission of a particular percentage of high-school graduates ought not to disguise what has to be done to remedy the failure of the schools below to do what they’re paid by us to do. (Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn.)


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