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Researchers Explore Ways to Improve Racial Diversity at Colleges

In the aftermath of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have cast doubt on college race-based admissions policies, a new book offers suggestions for alternatives to diversify campuses from using zip codes as a factor in the admissions process to giving preference to students from low-income backgrounds.

The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education and Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas  with an introduction by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and 17 other chapters written by academics, economists, lawyers, college president and administrators provides ideas on how to attract and support students from different backgrounds to higher education.

This comes at a time when 10 states, with more than a quarter of the country's population, have banned the use of race in admissions at public colleges and universities by voter initiative or other means, according to research in the book by Century Foundations' Halley Potter.

The free downloadable book was introduced at an event in Washington June 17 sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and The Century Foundation.(The Lumina Foundation supports Education Week coverage of P-16 issues.)

In one chapter, researchers from Georgetown University show that Hispanic and African-American student enrollment at the country's top 193 elite colleges would more than double if students who achieve (based on test scores) in the top 10 percent of every high school class were guaranteed admission, with low-income students given some extra consideration in the admissions process. These "race-conscious" models hold promise over "race alone" policies, the researchers note, but elite colleges need to be willing to adjust their accepted average test scores to accommodate the range of students eligible from all high schools.

Three states (Texas, California and Florida) have created policies to admit students who graduate at the top of their high-school classes, opening up access to students from poorer schools.  The approach was successful in Texas, as the percent of Latino and African-American students at the University of Texas-Austin was higher with the 10-percent policy than under race-based affirmative action, said the Century Foundations' Potter at the event today. However, she noted more needed to be done.

"We can't just make old levels of diversity our goal," she said, adding that selective colleges in particular were not keeping up. "We need to continue to open the door and match the diversity we are seeing rapidly increase in our country."

The book emphasizes the value of bringing students with different life experience to campus. Learning in a diverse environment is "a prerequisite to a vibrant democracy," writes Nancy Cantor, the president of Rutgers Newark in her chapter.

Other ideas to promote campus diversity floated in the book include reducing reliance on standardized test scores, addressing the undermatching issue (students not enrolling in the most challenging schools) across the full range of four-year institutions; and establishing a national database of admissible students to help colleges recruit representative cohorts.

Earlier this year, meanwhile, the White House hosted a summit to gather ideas from higher education leaders and nonprofits to expand access to low-income and minority students, as well as support them to completion.

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