December 24, 1999
College by the Numbers
By FRANK H. T. RHODES
THACA, N.Y. -- When I was provost of the
school had a
student prize for medical diagnosis:
the S.S.W. Award. The initials stood
for "swift, sure and wrong." I am
reminded of it when I hear reports
celebrating Texas's "10 percent solution" -- its experiment in maintaining
diversity in its public universities by
guaranteeing admission for every student graduating in the top 10 percent
of any high school in the state.
Attracted though we are to swift
and simple solutions to national problems, this route to expanding educational opportunity for underrepresented minorities should be avoided by
any university that has better choices.
Texas adopted the 10 percent solution only after an unfortunate federal
court decision banned the traditional
affirmative action policies its university had used successfully for years.
California followed, taking up a 4 percent rule after a voter referendum
forced it, too, to abandon affirmative
action. These guarantees may well be
the best these states can do to help
their universities maintain the diversity that prepares students best to
participate in a pluralistic society.
But now Florida, with no constraint
except the threat of a state referendum, has replaced affirmative action
with a variation -- a 20 percent admissions system -- and other states will
likely consider similar schemes.
The excitement over the simplicity
of the 10 percent solution should not
blind us to its liabilities. In the admissions process itself, the policy penalizes students at a state's more demanding secondary schools, where
those in, say, the second decile are
often better equipped for college than
those in the top 10 percent at other
schools. And, by encouraging admission of less able students into more
selective institutions, it may leave
them struggling for survival in classes
more difficult than they have been
prepared to handle.
In high schools, the promise of automatic admission may be an incentive
to some students to work hard, but
others will be discouraged from taking the extra-hard course or enrolling
in the more demanding high school for
fear of jeopardizing a high class rank.
Consider, too, that the 10 percent solution's very success at assuring minority enrollment depends in large part
on continuing de facto segregation of
Texas high schools. Is that a situation
we should seek to perpetuate?
At the university level, public education itself stands to be harmed as
the great public institutions run the
risk of becoming less competitive with
the strongest private schools. The 10
percent solution does nothing, either,
to address the vital question of minority balance in graduate, medical, law
and other professional schools.
For all its simplicity and attractiveness, the 10 percent solution is race-blind at the price of being individual-blind.
A quota system, however well
intended, and a numerically based admissions system, however well-conceived, deny the significance and priority of individuality, in all its bewildering complexity. That is a terrible
price to pay.
"A university," John Henry Newman once wrote, "is not a foundry, or
a mint, or a treadmill . . . but an alma
mater, knowing her children one by
one." One by one, person by person:
that is the basis for educational success. It is also the basis for a free
society: we should not lightly abandon
it for a system which, however swift,
however simple, not only judges individuals by numbers, but uses numbers
as ambiguous as those of class standing.
Even in an age bedazzled by rankings, surely we can do better than that.
Why not base admissions decisions
on an assessment of the student as a
whole person, with honest regard for
race and ethnicity as two attributes
among many others -- scholastic
promise, analytical skills, comprehension, test scores, grades, essay quality, creativity, artistic and musical
ability, athletic skills, community
service, leadership ability, motivation,
success in dealing with adversity,
teacher assessment, career objectives, geographic origin, economic
background, interview performance
and more? That is the practice explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court in
the 1978 University of California v.
Bakke decision, and most of our states
are free to continue to use it. Unless
and until it is overturned, we should
stick with it.
It has served us well.
Frank H. T. Rhodes is president emeritus of Cornell University.