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Yes, There Are Easy Answers!

The NYT and Post find a quick fix for affirmative action.


Posted Thursday, December 2, 1999

        It's official: Over the past week, in rapid succession, the editorial pages of both the New York Times and Washington Post endorsed what the Post called a "disarmingly simple alternative to traditional affirmative action" when it comes to college admissions. The solution? Guaranteed admission to college for a fixed percentage of the top students in each high school, regardless of grades or SAT scores. Although race-blind, this policy has the effect of boosting minority admissions--basically because it admits the top students at predominantly black high schools even if those students score lower than white students who aren't at the top of other (generally richer and whiter) schools.

        Call it the X Percent Solution. In Texas, where race-based admissions at the University of Texas were struck down by the courts in 1996, the state guaranteed admission to the top 10 percent of each public high school--and black admissions at UT rebounded. California adopted a 4 percent rule after a voter initiative, Prop. 209, banned race preferences at state colleges and universities. More recently, in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush issued an executive order guaranteeing state university admission to the top 20 percent of each high school graduating class--again, as a replacement for a race-based affirmative action program.

        The Times hailed the Texas policy in an editorial last Saturday (even though last year it dismissed the idea as "tinkering"). The Post followed on Monday, saying that if the X Percent Solution "turns out to get the job done without explicit resort to race or ethnicity . . . why not?" The Solution also has support on the right--from governors George and Jeb Bush, most obviously, but also (at least in its diluted, 4 percent form) from Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who has led the fight against race preferences in his state.

        So, hey, everybody's happy! But has anyone really thought through the full implications of this convenient fix? Has the divisive, decades-long debate over affirmative action really been defused by a clever policy gimmick? It's not impossible. But there's at least one obvious problem: The gimmick depends on high school segregation. If there weren't all-black ghetto high schools, then admitting the top X Percent of each school wouldn't have the effect of admitting so many blacks. Indeed, if schools were perfectly integrated by race, and equal in quality, then automatically admitting the top 10 percent at each school probably wouldn't make much difference in admissions at all (when compared with a straight policy of simply admitting "top" students regardless of where they went to school.)

        The Post seems to think this contradiction is really a delicious irony. ("The residential segregation that persists in so much of the nation becomes an instrument for desegregating higher education ...") But it's more than that. The dynamic could easily work the other way--with the X Percent solution in education becoming an instrument for furthering residential segregation, as black families with high-performing students decide to keep their kids in all-black neighborhoods because that will virtually guarantee their kids a ticket to college.

        This dilemma is particularly acute for supporters of school choice (mostly on the right) who hope that vouchers, or other choice mechanisms such as charter schools, will encourage motivated black students to leave bad schools and attend better ones. But why would a black student who is near the top of his class at a lousy public high school--and therefore guaranteed college admission under the X Percent Solution--leave to go to a much better high school where he's apt to rank in the middle of the class? Indeed, why would any good student, black or white, leave a bad school for a good school if he ranks much higher at the former than at the latter? The X Percent Solution seems to subvert the basic mechanism that is supposed to make school choice work. What's your answer, Gov. Bush? (Either one of you!)

        There are other problems with the X Percent Solution: Even if there's no school choice, won't it remove a major incentive for poor schools to improve? After all, their top 10 or 20 percent get into college anyway! And what happens should society become more integrated, and the need for an X Percent set-aside diminish? Do you want to be the politician who tries to take away a neighborhood high school's traditional X percent quota? The guaranteed-admission slots could become an unassailable entitlement, as hard to cut as a Social Security COLA.

        Time for public-policy journalists, especially on the right, to investigate these complications. It may turn out that the X Percent gimmick is just that, and that if you want to substitute class-based preferences for race-based preferences, there's no short-cut that miraculously avoids the need to examine each individual's record--or that automatically produces high minority admissions.

        Assigned to: Richard Kahlenberg--you've probably written this already! Jeff Rosen (New Republic); Nicholas Lemann (New Yorker); David Tell (Weekly Standard); Paul Gigot (Wall Street Journal); Abigail Thernstrom.

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.