Minority summer programs get axe after Michigan rulings

by Zachary Goldstein | 5/7/04 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles examining the far-reaching effects of last year's Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action.

The May 1 deadline for high-school seniors to decide where they will be enrolling next year marked the conclusion of this year's college admissions process -- the first admissions cycle since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two landmark decisions on the legality of racial preference in higher education admissions.

Last June, the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of the use of race as a factor in the college admissions process. Ruling five to four in favor of the Michigan Law School's program to achieve diversity, the Court in effect approved admissions systems based on individualized assessment of applicants, similar to those used at Dartmouth and at many other selective institutions across the country.

At the same time, the High Court struck down six-to-three the specific point-based system used for Michigan undergraduate admissions.

Proponents of affirmative action claimed victory, and it was widely believed that the rulings had finally legally established affirmative action in higher education admissions.

But the Michigan decisions have had unexpected effects, particularly in the fields of pre-matriculation summer enrichment programs for high school students and financial aid.

Selective programs of all kinds that had previously been limited to minority applicants are being opened up to students of all races. Additionally, minority applications this year were down nominally at many selective institutions across the country, including Dartmouth -- possibly a short-term consequence of the decisions.

Even in name alone, programs previously designed for minorities are quickly disappearing from colleges across the country. Schools are dropping the word "minority" from the titles of a wide variety of programs ranging from scholarships to orientation and recruitment programs. While these programs were designed initially to target black, Hispanic and Native American populations, many are being forced to open their application processes to populations that had been excluded, including white and Asian students.

"There are a lot of institutions -- not Dartmouth, not Ivy institutions -- that had a variety of scholarship programs targeting minorities students and I think those are on shaky ground," Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg said. "None of this is a problem for a place like Dartmouth because all our scholarships are need-based and we have a ton of money to distribute, so we're not as constrained as some of these other places."

The Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship program was among the older and more established of such programs. The program takes students from 34 colleges across the country, including Dartmouth, and until this year was open only to minority students. Students selected as fellows in the program are provided with a faculty mentor and financial support to continue their education.

In July the Mellon Foundation decided to open its program to whites and all other applicants in order to comply with the Supreme Court decisions. The new program, just now finishing its inaugural application process, is now called the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a change made to comply with the law while maintaining the program's original purpose, Director Lydia English said.

"What we have done is to reaffirm our mission to bring diversity to the faculties of universities and colleges around the country by encouraging minority students to go on to PhDs," English said. "We will take anyone who shares these goals and is committed to this cause."

Students of any ethnicity will now be evaluated on the basis their commitment to this ideal, though it is unclear at this stage how the change will effect the composition of the program. Non-minority students who hope to be accepted in the program will have to demonstrate their commitment to the goals of increasing minority representation in higher education in their essays, recommendations and previous activities toward that end.

Summer enrichment programs at Princeton, MIT and Carnegie Mellon have also been forced to open to students of all ethnicities and change their selection process in the wake of the Court's rulings.

At Carnegie Mellon, the selection process for academic programs now considers "an array of academic and extracurricular credentials, backgrounds, interests, achievements and experiences," according to Assistant Director of Admission Megan Dempster. Previously the program accepted only black, Hispanic, and American Indian students.

Carnegie Mellon, responding early in 2003 to challenges by two affirmative-action advocacy groups, had insisted that its summer program would remain closed off to non-minority groups. But the university yielded in February, after deciding that its previous policy was no longer consistent with the law.

Not all minority programs are yielding under the pressure of the Michigan ruling. Washington University in St. Louis has continued to offer its four-year John B. Ervin Scholars Program for Black Americans. The program is open exclusively to African American U.S. citizens and offers a minimum of 10 scholarships per year -- each with full tuition and a $2,500 stipend.

Pepperdine is the only other school in the country that refused to alter its minority scholarship programs despite having been challenged by the two advocacy groups.

The Supreme Court decisions, however, did not require any changes either to Dartmouth's existing admissions process, or to those of most other upper-echelon colleges and universities.

But while the law school decision allowed for schools like Dartmouth to continue admissions as usual, the undergraduate case officially put an end to any method that was not "truly individualized" and "used in a flexible, non-mechanical way," as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor required in her majority opinion in the law school case.

The most obvious casualty was, of course, the University of Michigan itself, which had used a points-based system that rewarded minority applicants based solely on their race.

The extra cost for Michigan to redesign its program totaled $1.8 million. The University was forced to change its application, adding multiple essays and hire over 20 new staff members -- five admissions counselors and 15 part-time readers -- required to individually review every application submitted.

"We revised the undergraduate admissions system. We discarded the points system and put together a much more holistic file review," Michigan spokeswoman Julie Peterson said. "Each application is reviewed by both a reader and a counselor who do a qualitative assessment."

Schools with admissions systems in place similar to Dartmouth's required little change in structure, but the Michigan verdicts nonetheless had other side effects within selective college admissions. This year many selective institutions across the country saw nominal declines in minority applicants. Down two percent from last year, 36.2 percent of Dartmouth acceptances this year were students of color. Though he admitted that it may be related to the Michigan cases, Furstenberg characterized the decline as "a very short-run transitional issue" and "an immediate PR aftershock from the Michigan case" that he expects to "rebound."

He speculated that some minorities may have assumed that all schools were operating like Michigan, with a separate track or a point system. Since such programs were banned by the Michigan rulings, some minority applicants may have received the false impression that their chances of being admitted to selective schools had decreased.

Now, focus seems to have turned to another under-represented segment of the population: students from low-income backgrounds, regardless of race.

"A lot of people are saying, 'yes, diversity is great, diversity is important, but diversity shouldn't just be about race," Furstenberg said. "And when you look at some of the data nationally, and see that low-income people are not as well represented at these places, you put all that together, and say there should be more effort of an affirmative action natureto reach out to students from less-advantaged backgrounds, regardless of race."

Nor have Michigan decisions have not made groups opposing racial preference disappear. In fact, focus on the college admissions process has expanded to other privileged groups in the process who some say receive unfair advantages -- among them legacies, minorities, students from wealthy high-schools, and athletes.

"People who have been arguing against affirmative action, they're not going away. They're just going to continue to look for other ways to attack these kinds of programs, to launch suits," Furstenberg said. "I just think we need to continue to be thoughtful about the way we articulate our values, the way we structure our various selection processes, so that we stay consistent with the law."