In the November 2006 elections, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, effectively ending “preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin,” despite the protests of school administrators and educators, who claimed that “diversity” was essential to education. Some of these same administrators and education officials are now using a program called Descriptor Plus, a geo-demographic tagging service, to filter university applicants in an attempt to preserve the diversity created by pre-Proposal 2 admissions standards
Since Proposal 2 overcame its final barrier to ballot access this past summer, the admissions department searched for methods to maintain diversity. Ted Spencer, vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions told the Detroit Free-Press, “If you show me a company that doesn’t plan for possible changes, then I’ll show you a company that isn’t very effective.”
Prior to the enactment of Proposal 2 in late December, U-M accepted significantly larger portions of Hispanic, black, and Native American applicants than at the same time last year.
U-M admissions officials hope to use Descriptor Plus to analyze applicants in a more “holistic” fashion. This language is similar to that of University of California – Los Angeles admissions officials, who are suffering an “admissions crisis” several years after Proposition 209 ended racial preferences in the University of California system. In the 2007 incoming class of freshman, only two percent of the class will be black. In light of this situation, UCLA officials committed to a major shift in admissions strategy in an attempt to increase the number of minority students without using race in the decision. Personal characteristics and academic characteristics, formerly considered by separate officials, are now considered by the same reviewer, in hopes of finding students who have a variety of experiences to contribute to the “intellectual and cultural vitality” of campus.
The Descriptor Plus program is provided by the College Board, the testing company who manages the SAT, PSAT, and SAT II exams. Descriptor Plus, at a cost of $15,000 per year, will analyze an applicant’s geographic location to place the student in a “cluster.” According to the College Board, they have segmented the entire U.S. population into 180,000 geographic “neighborhoods,” and placed each of these “neighborhoods” into one of 30 clusters, each with unique attributes. Among the included attributes are: mean SAT scores, average parental education levels, percentage of high school graduates entering college, and the percentage of students that are minorities. Using these collected attributes and clusters, U-M hopes preserve current minority enrollment levels while obeying the letters, if not the spirit, of Proposal 2.
The College Board, a non-profit national company well-known for running the SAT test, is strongly opposed to race-blind policies like Proposition 209 and Proposal 2. In a policy paper titled “From Federal Law to State Voter Initiatives: Preserving Higher Education’s Authority to Achieve Educational, Economic, Civic, and Security Benefits Associated with a Diverse Student Body,” the College Board states the purpose of the paper is to focus “on key issues that higher educations institutions should address in order to deflect (and, ultimately, defeat) similar voter initiatives [to Proposal 2].”
Knowing the College Board’s support of affirmative action and frustration with Proposal 2, some question the intentions of the Descriptor Plus program. Roger Clegg, President and General Counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said that the geo-demographic tagging might serve as a proxy for race in an application. “It depends on how the term ['demographic'], is defined. It sounds like it may be not just a proxy for race or ethnicity in an application, but be race or ethnicity itself.”
In Grutter v. Bollinger, affirmative action was deemed acceptable because it was the “only” way that the compelling interest of diversity could be protected. Many conservative commentators, however, have been suggesting a system of socio-economic affirmative action as a system that encouraged diversity without making decisions based on race. Clegg said that the success of such a system would depend on “how objective (i.e. nonracially) ‘socioeconomic’ is defined, and on the good faith of those applying the standard (especially if the standard is malleable).” If the tone of comments made by admissions office staff and President Mary Sue Coleman in the past few months are any indicator, however, there are questions about just how committed the university is to race-blind and objective standards. Coleman, in her speech on the Diag in November, told the crowd, “We will find ways to overcome the handcuffs that Proposal 2 attempts to place on our reach for greater diversity.” Furthermore, the application for admission continues to have a blank to include the applicant’s race, despite Proposal 2′s emphasis on race not being part of the decision process.
As the university is forced to retool its admissions process, the openness of the admissions department is in question. For this article, the department was asked for comment over two weeks ago, and this writer is yet to hear a response from the department on the use of Descriptor Plus. With the lack of transparency and continuation of the use of race on applications, one is left to draw their own conclusions on the intention of the department when it uses Descriptor Plus. In the same Detroit Free Press article, Spencer said, “We make no bones about the fact that diversity is important to us.” The university carried out a now-outlawed affirmative action program under the banner of “diversity” for many years, and is now attempting to reach the same goal with different tools.
The tone of the College Board policy paper, which talks of “defeating” voter initiatives similar to Proposal 2, exhibits much of the same institutionalized opinions that have not changed, no matter which voter initiative passes. “It shows that these advisors are less interested in education,” Clegg said, “than in guaranteeing a predetermined and politically correct racial and ethnic mix.”