Affirmative Action Special Report
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Colleges Compete for Minority Students By Helping Them Achieve

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 28, 1996; Page A01

Every afternoon at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, dozens of students, some as young as 11 years old, crowd into a classroom for extra training in math and science and daily sermons on the importance of the subjects to their futures. The sessions, which target minority students, are led and paid for by the University of California.

Across San Francisco Bay, at Berkeley High School, minority students like Maria Villegas hear the same pleas all the time.

UC-Berkeley officials are offering them weekend and summer programs in math and science, coaching on taking college entrance exams, even workshops for writing top-notch essays on their college applications.

"They really want to get the idea of college in our heads," said Villegas, 15, whose family emigrated from Mexico five years ago. "And they want us very prepared."

Prepared, that is, to clear new hurdles to higher education.

Facing growing pressure to scrap or limit racial preferences in admissions, universities nationwide are working urgently to get many more disadvantaged minority students on a track to college years ahead of time and to make them more qualified to enroll based on academic merit, rather than the color of their skin.

In California, for example, only 5 percent of black graduates from public schools in the state, and only 4 percent of Hispanic graduates, now meet the university system's admissions standards. That compares with 13 percent of whites. Until now, its universities have been able to keep their campuses racially and ethnically diverse partly by creating different admissions standards for racial groups: The statewide gap in scores on the Scholastic Achievement Test between Asian and white students and black and Hispanic students is several hundred points.

But California voters just became the first in the nation to approve a measure that will prevent separate racial yardsticks from being used in admissions. The success last month of California's Proposition 209, a landmark state ban on affirmative action that is being challenged in federal court, is the latest in a series of events causing alarm about minority enrollment at many universities.

Last year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that public universities in its jurisdiction – Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – could not in most circumstances consider a student's race as a factor in admissions. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the case. It also has let stand another federal court ruling that ended a University of Maryland scholarship program that was exclusively for black students.

The developments are forcing some universities to rethink their process for selecting students and to start devoting more time and money on academic programs that cultivate more qualified minorities, especially those who are attending public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In Georgia, for example, universities are working to strengthen academic standards in public schools in ways that would allow more minorities to qualify for college. At the University of Virginia, where the emphasis is on recruiting and retaining qualified students, high school seniors are courted long before they reach the campus.

"I think the message is finally beginning to pierce the often impregnable wall of higher education that business as usual when it comes to having a diverse student body has to change," said Clint Bolick, the vice president of the Institute for Justice, a Washington advocacy group that is working in states to overturn affirmative action.

Even with systems of racial preference in admissions, many of the nation's top public and private colleges are struggling to create a racially diverse student body. Now, some fear that if the hostility toward racial preferences spreads, their campuses soon could become even less diverse.

That has left many universities competing harder for top minority students, especially those who are pursuing study in the sciences, and embarking on new strategies in high schools – even middle schools – to try to increase the number of academically qualified minority applicants.

The era of affirmative action on the nation's campuses is far from over. Most higher education leaders support it. Most state legislatures have not taken steps to undermine it. The Supreme Court also has not retreated from a 1978 decision that justified racial preferences in college admissions to promote student diversity. But universities also know public sentiment about affirmative action is hardening, and that more aggressive efforts to target high-achieving minorities can only help them in the future.

"Outreach to minority students is becoming an ever more important priority for colleges," said Margaret Heisel, who directs academic programs that the University of California sponsors in public schools. "With all the uncertainties on campuses about affirmative action, it is getting more critical for these programs to really work."

In California, one way public universities are trying to offset the looming ban on racial preferences in admissions is by expanding a math, engineering and science achievement program known as MESA. It serves more than 13,000 students statewide. Most of them are minorities because officials target the program in minority communities, but no race is excluded. UC-Berkeley officials are expanding MESA into more schools, and its scope is growing in some of the schools that already use it.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, in one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods, students had been working in the UC-Berkeley program a few times a week. This fall, dozens of them are taking a MESA class every day, and sometimes on Saturday.

As part of the class, faculty and UC-Berkeley graduate students provide extra academic help in math and science. They also encourage MESA students to pursue careers in the subjects. Minority engineers and scientists from California's Silicon Valley technology corridor come to the school to speak, and students take field trips for some science experiments.

"To expose them to these things on a daily basis will be very significant," said James Taylor, the principal at Martin Luther King, where nearly 90 percent of the students are minorities. "That's the first problem – just exposing them early enough to get on track for the right courses in high school, and the right track to college. To make sure they are qualified, we have to start very early."

High schools that are part of MESA are also providing students with more training in math and science and preparation for exams such as the SAT. At UC-Berkeley, among the most academically selective public universities in the nation, academic departments that traditionally have had low minority enrollment, such as engineering, are considering other steps to maintain or improve diversity.

One possibility, they say, is to form more partnerships with historically black colleges, whose popularity has grown this decade, that would allow minority students to earn degrees by spending a few years on each campus.

University officials said the small pool of qualified minority applicants in the state, along with growing recruiting campaigns by private colleges for them, warrants more drastic action. "We're really trying to expand our outreach efforts," said Alice Agogino, the associate dean of UC-Berkeley's College of Engineering. "Getting minority students has become extremely competitive."

Maya Reyes, a UC-Berkeley senior who participated in MESA during high school, said she believes minority students, even those who strongly support affirmative action, would prefer more emphasis on programs that help them long before college.

"When you're applying to college I think the last thing you want is for your race to be the main factor," said Reyes, who is studying public health. "I've always thought there should be more of this. It opens doors in the best way."

Still, UC-Berkeley officials say the ban on racial preferences is creating a perception among many minority parents and students in the state that they are not wanted. That, they say, could be one reason why the number of Hispanic applicants to UC-Berkeley declined a bit this year and the number of black applicants remained flat.

Trishana Lewis, a senior at Berkley High who has been part of a UC-Berkeley outreach program for years, illustrates that problem. She has a strong academic record, wants to go to medical school, and has applied to UC-Berkeley. But she says that even if she is accepted, she is now more likely to attend Howard University.

"Right now, because of Proposition 209, I think I would feel more secure at a place like that," Lewis said. "I can see how it is even separating this school. More of the white students are applying to UC. More of the minorities don't want to go."

Even UC-Berkeley outreach programs that mostly aid minority students in high schools and middle schools in the state could now be in jeopardy, depending on the fate of Proposition 209.

Some opponents of affirmative action say the ban voters approved should extend to initiatives that either exclude some students by race or target only minority groups for help to college. But others say that once racial preferences are banned and college admission is based more squarely on merit, outreach programs should be strengthened to give more minorities a better shot to compete for campus slots.

"That's what real affirmative action ought to be about," said the Institute for Justice's Bolick.

"Right now, there are still more questions than answers about this," said Michael Aldaco, MESA's executive director. "We don't know what interpretation will prevail."

As that debate persists, many other universities are stepping up their efforts to recruit and retain minority students who have strong academic records.

At the University of Virginia, for example, hundreds of minority students and their parents are invited each fall and spring – even before they are accepted – to participate in weekend-long workshops on the campus. They get detailed briefings on academic life, financial aid and meet with on-campus minority students.

"We can't wait anymore until students get here to reach out," said Rick Turner, the dean of the university's Office of African-American Affairs. "It's too late."

The work is paying off: About 12 percent of its freshman class this year is black. For four-year public universities, that is among the highest rates in the nation. Only about 6 percent of UC-Berkeley's undergraduates are black, even with racial preferences.

Higher education officials say those figures show how bleak minority enrollment could get without using affirmative action in admissions – unless far more minority students improve scholastically and get on a firm track to college.

"One way or another, the debate on affirmative action keeps coming up, and more colleges are bracing for it," said Robert Kronley, an analyst with the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates equity in higher education. "They are trying more to level the academic playing field for minorities, from the start."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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