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Decision Means Most Colleges Will Stay Course

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2003; Page A09

Most of the nation's colleges and universities should not have to alter their admissions procedures because of yesterday's Supreme Court decisions upholding race-conscious affirmative action for achieving racial diversity but outlawing highly mechanical methods of reaching that goal, according to college presidents, lawyers and higher education lobbyists.

Many university leaders view the court's decisions as a ringing endorsement of their current practices and a road map for crafting affirmative action programs that pass constitutional muster.

"This is essentially an affirmation of policies that most institutions have followed," said Constantine W. Curris, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "It underscores the importance of diversity and ensuring that graduate and professional schools are open to all students. It also offers a little clearer delineation of constitutionally permissible methods."

In its decisions, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan's law school admissions process of giving an unspecified preference to qualified applicants who would enhance diversity. But the court struck down the university's undergraduate admissions system, which assigned 20 points on a 150-point scale to students who are members of underrepresented minority groups.

"This is clearly a win for the higher education community," said Scott Palmer, a former Department of Education civil rights official who is now a lawyer who works with colleges and universities to ensure their policies are constitutional. "Now you're into a discussion of how you do race-conscious affirmative action, not whether you do it."

Most American colleges and universities accept the vast majority of applicants. Even among selective schools -- even huge public universities that must review tens of thousands of applications each year -- few operate affirmative action programs that are as blunt as Michigan's undergraduate point system.

Instead, schools often apply a minimum academic bar consisting of test scores, class rank and high school courses to eliminate some applicants, and a high academic standard to presumptively admit others. The schools then individually consider the students who fall in between, factoring in race with all their other attributes in ways that are difficult to quantify.

"There are very few schools that currently replicate the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program," said Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a higher education lobbying group. "The handwriting has been on the wall for almost a decade, and most universities have amended their admissions processes so as to provide a full-file review of each individual candidate."

In the Washington area, college leaders expressed relief about the rulings.

Most schools in the region, from the public flagship universities of Maryland and Virginia to the District's elite private colleges, have undertaken aggressive efforts to increase the number of minorities they enroll -- a goal they have promoted as essential.

Although most acknowledge giving some level of preference to minority candidates, they say they have done so in a nuanced manner, avoiding the kind of point system that the court found objectionable.

"From the way we look at it, our admissions procedures appear to be clean and in compliance," said William Walker, a spokesman for the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "I think it's brought some clarity to a situation that's been murky for some time."

"It's exactly the decision I'd have written if I were on the court," said Stephen J. Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University. "Michigan's going to have to spend a little money and hire a bigger admissions crew and actually read all the applications -- like we do."

Officials at the University of Texas, one of the nation's largest public universities, where a federal appeals court struck down affirmative action policies in 1996, said the Supreme Court decisions could clear a path to allow them to reinstitute race-conscious admissions.

University President Larry Faulkner said the university would examine reviving race-conscious admissions as early as next year. But a highly touted race-neutral plan granting university admission to the top 10 percent of the graduating class in each high school in the state already fills 70 percent of the university's undergraduate seats, leaving officials little latitude.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law professor who fought to keep racial preferences alive at the university in the 1990s, said it would "be a mistake" for activists on the left to begin a campaign to dramatically broaden affirmative action.

"Places like Texas that have had to abandon [affirmative action programs] may now return to them, and that would be an expansion," he said. "But affirmative action works best when you keep the preference pretty small, and that assures that your minority students will be pretty competitive when they get there. And that's what the court has approved."

At Bowdoin College in Maine, one of the least racially diverse states in the country, minority enrollment has increased from 17 percent to 26 percent in recent years because of an emphasis on minority outreach combined with "holistic" reviews of applicants that go far beyond traditional academic measures.

The highly regarded liberal arts college does not require students to submit standardized test scores, and instead relies on a more flexible definition of merit that includes closely reading their essays, sizing up students as individuals and giving some preference to underrepresented minorities.

"The best guess is these decisions reaffirm what we are already doing in trying to judge what talent and merit mean in an individual way," said Barry Mills, Bowdoin's president. "Where this is more difficult is at schools that have very formulaic ways of assessing applicants. They are going to have to change how they take race into account."

Staff writers Lee Hockstader in Austin and Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.

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