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States following the law on affirmative action limits in college admissions

Affirmative action in decline?

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A new study finds that levels of affirmative action – defined as the percentage point advantage black, Hispanic and Native American college applicants had over otherwise similar non minority applicants – fell in eight states after such policies were banned through referenda, judicial rulings as occurred in Georgia, or administrative decisions.

The study said those eight states saw a significant reduction in the level of affirmative action at their public colleges, which runs counter to a common narrative that minority applicants have an edge in getting into Georgia's premier campuses.

In 1997, three white female applicants denied admission to the University of Georgia filed a lawsuit attacking the constitutionality of UGA's consideration of race, among other factors, in 10 to 20 percent of application decisions.

A federal judge in Savannah ruled the practice was unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001. The appeals court said UGA’s admissions policies arbitrarily granted preferences to minority applicants and did little to promote actual diversity.

As the AJC reported at the time:

The court upheld an earlier decision by U.S. District Court Judge B. Avant Edenfield, who presided over a case brought by three white female applicants who claimed to be victims of reverse discrimination. The three were represented by Atlanta attorney A. Lee Parks, who challenged the constitutionality of UGA's Total Student Index, a complicated admissions formula used to evaluate 10 to 20 percent of applicants.

Parks applauded the decision not to appeal as "a good, positive step."

Instead of relying on the Total Student Index, UGA President Michael Adams said in a written statement issued Friday that officials plan to set it aside for next fall's class and to increase diversity by recruiting more and better qualified minority students to campus, where the undergraduate African-American population stands at less than 6 percent.

The statement listed several measures already under way that will be strengthened and continued.

In addition, there will be a "close, full and intense reading and review of each application" in the final 10 to 20 percent of high school seniors evaluated for admission, Adams said, with staff and faculty reviewing each file. That way, the university will be able to retain "the necessary academic flexibility to admit students with special skills, talents and qualities."

The decision was reached after consultations involving Adams, University of Georgia System Chancellor Stephen Portch, Gov. Roy Barnes, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and his staff and officials from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  The school also abandoned as an admissions factor its use of "legacy" --- giving preference to family of alumni --- and relied instead simply on standardized test scores and high school grades for incoming freshmen.

Here is a release by the American Educational Research Association on the new study out of the University of Washington:

University of Washington researchers Grant H. Blume and Mark C. Long have produced the first empirical estimates using national-level data to show the extent to which levels of affirmative action in college admissions decisions changed during the period of 1992 to 2004. Blume and Long’s study, “Changes in Levels of Affirmative Action in College Admissions in Response to Statewide Bans and Judicial Rulings,” was recently published online in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (EEPA), a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Here is a video of the authors discussing the study.

The authors find a significant decline nationally in the level of affirmative action used by selective public colleges from 1992 to 2004. This decline is attributable to institutions in the eight states affected by statewide affirmative action bans or Circuit Court rulings during the period (Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Washington). 

While selective public institutions in the eight states, which Blume and Long label “post affirmative action states,” ceased giving preferences to minority applicants in their admissions decisions, selective public institutions in other states continued to do so.

“There’s been a lot of debate about whether or not states are complying with the law,” said Blume. “Our research shows that they are.”

Blume and Long define affirmative action as the higher probability of admission for an underrepresented minority (black, Hispanic, or Native American) student compared with a similar nonminority (white or Asian) student at the same institution. They found substantial and significant preference being given to minority students in 1992 at highly selective institutions in all states, but by 2004 there were dramatic declines in preference given to minority students in the eight affected states.

Outside of the eight post-affirmative action states, at selective public institutions (i.e., colleges and universities where an enrolled first-year student has a median SAT score of 1,100 or higher) a minority applicant was 19 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a comparable non-minority applicant in 1992, and this advantage remained at 18 percentage points in 2004.

The researchers also found spillover effects for students living in states bordering the eight affected states, particularly in Arizona, Nevada, and Idaho. Because these neighboring states lack highly selective institutions, students who apply to selective institutions in nearby California and Washington were affected by the decline in affirmative action in those two states. 

“These spillover effects are important to consider, especially in light of the growing number of states that have more recently enacted statewide bans (including Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, and Oklahoma) as these bans will likewise have regional implications for college applicants,” said Long.

To determine the magnitude of changes in affirmative action in states affected by bans and court rulings, Blume and Long examined nationally representative data on admissions decisions from 1994 and 2004.  In Texas, the 1997 Hopwood v. Texas ruling effectively banned affirmative action in college admissions; voter referendums in California in 1996 and in Washington in 1998 and administrative decisions in Florida in 1999 had the same result. The Hopwood and 2001 Johnson v. Board of Regents of the University of Georgia rulings against affirmative action applied to public colleges in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

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