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Percent Plans in College Admissions: A Comparative Analysis of Three States’ Experiences

Authors: Catherine L. Horn, Stella M. Flores, Gary Orfield
Date Published: February 01, 2003

Our public schools are becoming increasingly segregated by race and income and the segregated schools are, on average, strikingly inferior in many important ways, including the quality and experience of teachers and the level of competition from other students. Given these facts, it is clear that students of different races do not receive an equal chance for college.
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In the wake of the abandonment of race-conscious affirmative action policies, percent plans for college admission were adopted in three of our largest states, California, Texas and Florida.  Advocates hail these policies as good substitutes for affirmative action, while critics claimed that they are often ineffective and based on another form of race- conscious action - targeting racially segregated high schools. Although presented as new initiatives, these plans actually represent a return to an old method of admitting students to leading colleges - the evaluation of high school grades and class standing.  
Traditional race-conscious affirmative action strategies are built around the recognition of the many ways in which inequality and segregation in institutions are self-perpetuating and the belief that intentional planning and support are needed to overcome the obstacles to successful integration. To accomplish its goals, affirmative action has had to develop into a process with many interrelated parts, most importantly:

  • making connections with students and schools of historically excluded and underrepresented groups; 
  • urging them to consider applying for admissions; 
  • creating events on campus and elsewhere for establishing contact and responding to fears and uncertainty;
  • providing assistance in getting ready for college;
  • considering diversity as a positive goal in the admissions process;
  • valuing special experiences and accomplishments of each group and individual;
  • making it possible for students to exercise a real choice through provision of needed financial aid;
  • and providing a supportive environment on campus to change the success of students and the reputation of a school. 

All of these steps take race into account and have, as a goal, making the university more reflective of the overall community and better able to incorporate diverse personal and intellectual perspectives that will enrich campus discussion, learning, and the development of students. Good affirmative action programs include all of that, and more. Without this broad formulation such programs cannot succeed. Mere admission, for example, would not be sufficient to address the forces that tend to keep institutions segregated. (Readers who may be skeptical about this should think about the worries they might have and the assurances they would seek in sending their children to institutions overwhelmingly of another race, with large cultural differences, and a history of exclusion.)
Obviously, within this broad conception of affirmative action, the actual decision about admission and whether or not race is considered as one of a number of “plus factors,” as in Bakke, is only one part of the process.  If a disadvantaged minority student is admitted but cannot afford to attend, or believes he will be treated badly on campus, the decision to admit may mean little.  Admission is a necessary but not sufficient condition for accomplishing the goals.  On the other hand, outreach and aid programs that targetminority communities and, as a result, double or triple applications from minority students can contribute strongly to gains. When institutions say that they have ended affirmative action, they are almost always talking about one part of an interrelated process, while continuing affirmative policies on other fronts, either through direct action or by adopting “race-attentive” recruitment policies focused on largely minority communities and schools.

In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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