US access measures blocked

March 2, 2001

Less than a year after promising to find new ways to increase the ranks of low-income and minority students on their campuses, American universities have found their way largely blocked by political and legal obstacles.

The schools were forced to stop giving preference in admissions to poor, black, Hispanic, Asian and other underrepresented groups after voter referendums and a rash of successful lawsuits by whites who claimed the selective practice amounted to reverse discrimination. The result has been a dramatic drop in the enrolment of minorities and poor students.

Attempts to compensate by introducing new admissions schemes have largely failed.

In Florida, Texas and California this year, public universities guaranteed admission to varying percentages of top-ranked students from each high school in their respective state. The idea was to ensure that an equal proportion of students from poor, urban and predominantly minority high schools were admitted to these universities.

But many high schools have refused to disclose their students' class ranks, citing privacy concerns, time constraints and a federal law that bars the release of student records without permission from the student or their parents.

Frustrated university officials have resorted to visiting high schools to appeal for the lists.

In Texas, the top 10 per cent of high school students were given prepaid postcards that they could send to one of the state's public universities to certify they were among the highest-ranked members of their class.

Although thousands of the postcards were distributed, only about 100 students forwarded them to the flagship University of Texas.

The universities' traditional admissions process relies on high school grades and scholastic aptitude testsentrance examination scores. Black and Hispanic students have tended to fare poorly in such measures.

In a bid to increase the proportion of low-income and minority students in the university system, the president of the University of California this month proposed the abolition of the Sat score as an assessment for admission.

President Richard C. Atkinson said in a speech before the American Council on Education that university admissions officials should use more "holistic" criteria to judge applicants, including individual achievement and academic potential.

He proposed that the use of the Sat be phased out by the 170,000-student University of California by the fall of 2003.

Because students in affluent districts do better on the test than those in poor and urban schools, Dr Atkinson said the use of Sats was "not compatible with the American view on how merit should be defined and opportunities distributed".

But even if Sats were to be dropped, other obstacles to raising the numbers of underrepresented students loom.

Ward Connerly, a University of California regent who was behind a 1995 ballot referendum at the university that ended so-called affirmative action in admission, has proposed a new law that would ban universities from collecting information on an applicant's race, ethnicity or national origin.

University officials said such a rule would prevent them from even measuring their success at increasing diversity on their campuses.

The proposal, which Mr Connerly calls the Racial Privacy Initiative, is scheduled to go to the ballot next year.

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