Immediately after a federal appeals court outlawed the University of Georgia's race-conscious affirmative action program last year, the school initiated a stepped-up plan for recruiting minority students.
The university opened two recruitment offices in heavily minority areas of the state. It brought groups of minority students and their parents in for campus visits. And it developed mailings directed at high-achieving minority high school students.
The effort paid off: 13 percent of this year's 4,300 freshmen were minorities, a slight increase over last year's total, when a race-conscious affirmative action program was still in effect.
The Georgia plan is among several alternatives for attracting minority students that colleges and universities have initiated amid the legal uncertainty surrounding affirmative action programs.
So far, the university recruitment strategies seem to be working. In 1999, minorities accounted for 28 percent of the nation's higher education enrollment, a substantial increase over 1990, when minorities made up 20 percent of the nation's higher education population. Similarly, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to minorities more than doubled in the 1990s, according to the American Council on Education.
Many higher education officials expect that the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided yesterday to review the constitutionality of the University of Michigan's race-conscious admissions policy, will clarify the law when it rules next year.
In recent years, admissions policies that consider race as a factor in enrolling students have been outlawed in seven states -- Washington, California, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida -- leaving the nation with a patchwork quilt of practices regarding affirmative action in higher education.
"Right now, what we have is confusion," said Patricia Mendoza, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "We have some jurisdictions where affirmative action has been outlawed, and others where it remains legal. In still other places, other measures have been implemented in an attempt to soften the impact of outlawing affirmative action on minorities."
As courts around the country have handed down conflicting opinions, most schools have continued with their race-conscious affirmative action programs. The legal guide for most of those programs is the 1978 ruling by a divided U.S. Supreme Court in the University of California Regents v. Bakke. That decision is widely interpreted by universities as allowing schools to consider an applicant's race as one of many factors in making an admissions decision.
In places where affirmative action has been struck down, universities are often pursuing strategies to bolster minority enrollment without explicitly choosing students because of their race. Instead, schools extend their outreach efforts or guarantee admission to students who graduate in the top tiers of their high school classes.
"Universities have begun to look into creative means, without using race as a specific criterion, to continue to seek a diverse student body," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education.
In Texas, for example, students are guaranteed a spot in the public university of their choice so long as they graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. California guarantees admission to students who graduate in the top 4 percent, while any Florida student who graduates in the top 20 percent of his class is guaranteed a seat at a public university.
These programs generally have proven successful in attracting students to undergraduate programs from the many schools that are predominantly black or Latino. After an initial decline in black and Hispanic enrollment, it rebounded at public universities in those states.
"The overall picture is that a number of race-neutral policies do work," said Curt Levey, director of legal and public affairs for the Center for Individual Rights, a public-interest law firm that has challenged affirmative action programs across the country. "The great irony is that it takes lawsuits or similar actions to get schools to do what they should have been doing all along."
Affirmative action proponents, however, say those policies are inadequate and do nothing to address diversity in graduate and professional schools. "There is no substitute for consciously and deliberately doing what you set out to do," said Theodore M. Shaw, associate director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Also, they said, many people do not realize that colleges routinely consider far more than standardized test scores and grades when admitting students. A student's special talents, where they live or whether their parents are alumni of a school can often have a bearing on admissions decisions.
If people knew that, they said, they would be less resentful of race-based admissions policies.
"On the face of it, it seems like only blacks and Latinos benefit from college admissions policies," said Godfrey J. Dillard, a lawyer representing a group of high school students and others who intervened in the University of Michigan case. "But, actually, many whites benefit from college admissions schemes."