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"How Colleges and Universities Can Promote K-12 Diversity: A Modest Proposal"

January/February 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

Today, court-supervised desegregation at the K-12 level is encountering an array of serious impediments. Indeed, some 50 years after Brown, very few legal or compulsory means remain to ensure that our nation’s schools remain racially and economically diverse. Unless school boards can be shown to be acting intentionally to promote segregation by race, federal courts have no constitutional tools to compel school authorities to provide racially diverse educational environments. Freed from judicial oversight, many local school boards and districts are currently opting for student assignment policies that lead inexorably to racial and economic isolation. And while the portion of the Supreme Court’s recent majority opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 authored by Justice Kennedy suggests that challenging racial and economic isolation at the K-12 level may constitute a compelling interest, the Court’s closely divided ruling likely will discourage most school districts from using race and ethnicity in current and future student assignment programs.

The developing consequences of these new legal and institutional patterns are clear: According to a report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, in 2006 51% of all African-American students in the Northeast, 46% in Border states, 42% in the Midwest and 30% in the South now attend schools that are 90-100% minority. Ironically, in districts like Jefferson County, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington, where school boards opted for integrated pubic schools, disgruntled white parents have alleged that these choices designed to maintain public school integration violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

In this environment, it is not surprising that parents of school-age children are increasingly raising questions about the benefits of integrated public schools at the K-12 level. Many parents whose prime concern is helping their children gain admission to our nation’s best colleges have made secondary school choices largely on the basis of what they perceive these colleges want. Convinced that colleges and universities are primarily concerned about high academic achievement and that diversity and high academic standards are incompatible, many families have spurned diverse high schools. Parents who appreciate the value of diversity would gladly send their children to an inclusive high school if they believed their child’s access to the college of their choice would be “protected.” Many African-American parents find themselves in a different kind of dilemma: Their children are frequently trapped in grossly inferior segregated schools. In most cases, high-achieving schools that are racially and economically diverse are simply not available for their children.

An Opportunity for Elite Colleges and Universities

As interest in integration has waned within our federal courts, few voices in American civil society have emerged to champion the cause of integrated public schools. In the Grutter and Gratz cases in 2003, however, the nation’s elite colleges and universities came forward in numerous friend-of- the Court briefs to assert their ongoing interest in racially diverse learning environments. We are convinced that these schools have not only the knowledge, but the the tools, the self-interest and the moral authority to help ensure that America’s public secondary schools remain economically and racially integrated.

Our selective universities have an extraordinary, implicit power, in their own admissions policies, to influence the kinds of educational choices parents demand for their children. For the past two years, we have been working with college administrators, scholars, university general counsels and higher-education organizations to explore the viability and promise of awarding an admissions advantage to academically qualified college applicants who have attended a high school with demonstrated capacity to prepare a racially inclusive student body for college and who have personally demonstrated the ability to compete, cooperate in this diverse educational setting. Over the long term, we believe that providing an admissions advantage to such high schools and students can critically shift the current calculus of millions of parents, and can encourage the creation of more high schools that are both inclusive and academically rigorous high schools capable of producing graduates who may be thought of as agents of diversity, first in our college communities and later in our nation’s communities.

The higher-education community knows well that diversity and excellence can co-exist. Indeed, the amici curiae briefs submitted by colleges and universities in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan case, indicate that diversity is an appropriate goal in the field of higher education. The Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter illustrates how authoritative the higher- education community can be on questions of diversity. Justice O’Connor explained in her majority decision in Grutter that the university’s “educational judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to which we defer.”

Colleges and universities can help parents appreciate the value of individual accomplishments achieved in an environment that mirrors and does not elide the diverse character of our society. For parents who wish to send their children to diverse high schools, but are afraid that racially mixed schools might have lower statewide testing results, colleges and universities can help address these fears by making it clear that they too attach great value to schools that reflect the make-up of present-day America. For parents in failing schools that are racially and economically segregated, colleges and universities can send the message that their children have not been forgotten. If those parents who acquiesce in racially isolated public schools are motivated largely by their desire to improve the chances of their children to attend the colleges of their choice, and if they now believe that a homogeneous secondary education is likely to be more rigorous and/or safe for their children, America’s elite colleges and universities have a unique opportunity, by acting upon their own deepest values, to abate those tensions and re-order parental priorities.

Our Approach

We have used Justice Powell’s holding in Bakke­­­­—which the Grutter Court recognized as the “touchstone for constitutional analysis of race admissions policies”—as a starting point for our efforts to move this initiative forward. Powell wrote that “race or ethnic background may be deemed a ‘plus’ factor in the context of a flexible and individualized consideration of each college applicant.” Looking to the future, Powell urged adoption of admissions criteria that are “often individual qualities or experiences not dependent on race, but sometimes associated with it.”

Our approach emphasizes collaboration. In an era in which top-down, judicially-mandated desegregation at the K-12 level is largely over, we are convinced that the greatest challenge —even for attorneys—is to develop voluntary and creative ways to ensure racial and economic integration at that level. Our first challenge was to devise a collaborative strategy that would energize and mobilize the higher-education community. We grappled with the challenge of building a social movement within the higher-education community and how best to bring about institutional change, both within individual institutions and across the higher-education community at large. While we realized that the participation of college presidents and chancellors would be critical, we also recognized that much preliminary work and relationship-building would be required before we approached these leaders. So we began close to home. We first talked with administrative officials at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—universities with which we are affiliated.

These conversations persuaded us that we should pursue a strategy that is simultaneously “bottom up” and “top down.” We should first build relationships with middle-level actors within universities, including undergraduate deans of arts and sciences, chief university diversity officers, university general counsels, education scholars and, of course, admissions directors. We believed these actors would have an institutional interest in this initiative, would be able to advocate for it within their institutions, and would ultimately be responsible for its implementation. Second, we focused on engaging university presidents/chancellors who—we hoped—would then publicly explore the viability of this initiative. We further believed that there would be productive synergy between these two approaches.

Four Related  Trajectories

We began to implement this strategy in September of 2006 when Julius Chambers formally introduced the initiative at the Politics of Inclusion Conference, a national gathering of college and university administrators held in Chapel Hill. We built on the momentum of his address by forging individual relationships with admissions directors, diversity officers, general counsels, deans and provosts from colleges across the country. From these conversations we learned that (in addition to the moral appeal we were making) it was critical to emphasize how the presence of high school students with diverse experiences would directly benefit colleges and universities. In addition, these conversations convinced us that our strategy would be most effective if we targeted four communities within the university world: admissions officials, who would implement this initiative; scholars—who could test the empirical assumptions that animate the initiative; university general counsels and other relevant attorneys—to consider the initiative’s legal viability and the limits of race-neutral programs; and, most importantly, presidents/chancellors, who would commit their institutions to this idea. Over the past months, we have coalesced four related and ongoing trajectories involving these groups. For this article, we focus on our work with college and university admissions directors across the country and, more briefly, efforts to engage college leaders.

New Ideas in Under-graduate Admissions

After discussions with more than a dozen admissions directors in the Fall of 2006, in January of 2007 we convened a group of seven admissions directors representing selective private and public institutions to discuss the viability of our initiative. Soon after this meeting, the College Board—best known for the SAT, but which also sponsors meetings and colloquia that attract college officials throughout the country—expressed interest in co-sponsoring (with the UNC Center for Civil Rights) a meeting that would further develop the concept. More than 20 admissions officials from around the country—including those representing large public universities that are grappling with new state laws that limit the use of race in the admissions process—met in June of 2007.

Together, these meetings helped us refine our original idea, which was an “admissions plus” for simply attending a racially and economically diverse high school. The admissions officials encouraged us to focus on identifying: 1) qualities that would enable students to adeptly negotiate and enrich an inclusive educational setting, and 2) the characteristics of the environments where students would likely acquire these qualities—in most, but not all cases, high schools.

These insights led us to develop the concept of “diversity capital.” Diversity capital is an alternative way to conceptualize diversity in both high school and college settings. Diversity capital is analogous to “human capital” or “cultural capital.” It denotes the qualities, skills and life experiences that enable a student to communicate, cooperate, compete and achieve in a truly inclusive setting. While diversity capital is an attribute of individuals, it is experientially acquired, not ascrip-tively given. Students develop diversity capital. Put differently, diversity capital might be considered one form of cultural competence necessary to be successful in our contemporary democracy and globalized world.

From a social scientific perspective we would anticipate clear benefits of diversity capital at both the individual and collective levels. Individual students who possess diversity capital and the qualities associated with it may display a range of improved outcomes both within and outside the classroom. Students with diversity capital might be expected to do better in a range of areas, both in high school and college. And the presence of a critical mass of students who possess this capital may advance the general educational mission of our colleges by serving as agents of engagement and inclusion. These, of course, are merely assumptions. We are now in the process of testing these assumptions with relevant national data.

There are a number of advantages to this focus on diversity capital. First, unlike many other admissions criteria —legacy status, for example—the ability to work cooperatively in an inclusive educational setting is a skill that is directly transferable to the college setting. Second, unlike athletic prowess, diversity capital would be an admissions criterion that would be relevant to all applicants. Potentially, all applicants could develop diversity capital. (Of course, the development of bridge-building skills—like the development of special music skills—would not be a requirement for all applicants in the type of individualized, holistic review that most of our selective colleges now undertake.) Third, a focus on diversity capital would make this initiative race-neutral, even as its introduction would be undertaken with the knowledge that at present few white students who apply to our selective colleges and universities attend diverse high schools. Indeed, while the language is certainly race-neutral, the intent is also race-neutral. Conversations with a broad range of attorneys have convinced us that the knowledge that at present historically under-represented minority students are more likely to have these qualities—precisely because they are more likely to have attended a diverse school—does not make this merely a “proxy for race” and, thus, a policy requiring strict scrutiny by the courts. Finally, diversity capital might be used to complement quantitative data collected at the individual, school and, increasingly, at the neighborhood level—i.e., GPA, class rank and quantitative measures of the socio-economic make-up of the neighborhoods and high schools from which applicants are drawn.

How would diversity capital actually operate in the undergraduate admissions process? At one of our national meetings, an admissions director provided one vision of how this concept might be operationalized. He began by noting that every admissions initiative his college had designed to attract students who could enrich an inclusive educational environment on his campus had been “gamed”—mostly by parents, advisors and personal coaches. Typically, the family’s week-long vacation to the Dominican Republic, or Costa Rica, or Mexico had enabled the applicant to develop at once an appreciation for and familiarity with difference. He said that the idea of diversity capital would create a different set of incentives. Indeed, he went on to say that his college was prepared to give an admissions advantage—“a thumb on the scale”—to that student who: 1) attended a high-performing, inclusive diverse secondary school—a school, for example, in which the demographic profile of the college track resembled the profile of the overall student body, and 2) demonstrated leadership or bridge-building qualities—one form of diversity capital. Under this policy, “gaming the system” would both produce more of the kinds of applicants this college desired as it challenged the increasing racial and economic isolation in our country. Indeed, according to another admissions director, our challenge is to proceed in a manner that links individual private gain with long-term public good.

Engaging University Leaders

A related trajectory centers on our efforts to involve university leaders in our work. This past April, Chancellor James Moeser at UNC-Chapel Hill led a discussion at the American Association of Universities that focused on this initiative. He began the conversation by asking his fellow presidents and chancellors if our nation’s finest universities had a collective—as distinct from an institutional—responsibility to challenge increasing racial and economic isolation at the K-12 level.

The conversation that followed was far-ranging and passionate. Four critical points emerged. First, there was general agreement that this issue was directly relevant to the mission of our greatest public and private universities. The assembled presidents assumed that at a meeting of university presidents it was important to talk about racial and economic isolation at the K-12 level. Second, there was great pessimism about the future of integrated schooling, not only at K-12—and this was before the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Jefferson County and Seattle cases—but also at the higher-education level. One president predicted that “in the very near term the only integrated schools left will be the private academies that are very intentional in their admissions policies.” He was convinced that “we have lost integration altogether in the public schools.” Several presidents who are also law school graduates believed that the Supreme Court would soon reverse Grutter, given how quickly they are reversing elements of the Roe decision. Third, many of the assembled presidents stressed the necessity of developing new ideas. “We are losing affirmative action,” one Ivy League president noted. He continued: “It is soon going to be completely shut down in this country, either by the Supreme Court in a reversal of Grutter, or through a series of state-wide initiatives. We have to figure out how to work in a totally new environment.” Fourth, several presidents believed that an admissions “plus” for simply attending a diverse high school was not a sufficiently nuanced instrument to address this problem. This reaction (along with our conversations with admissions officials) led to our present focus on individual qualities and school characteristics and development of the concept of diversity capital. We are actively engaged in finding ways to continue this conversation among the leaders of the higher-education community.

Next Steps

In addition to continuing work on these trajectories, we intend to focus on extending this conversation to the K-12 sector. We began this work trying to gauge the interest of the higher-education community in our concept. We are now convinced that there is ample evidence of such interest. We now seek to engage leaders at the K-12 level. Indeed, the project cannot move forward without the active participation of these leaders. Specifically, in the coming months we seek to explore how to define a genuinely inclusive and high-performing high school; what individual qualities—and these presumably would vary depending on the mission, geography and make-up of the school—should be privileged; and how the relationship between school characteristics and individual qualities should be conceptualized.

We invited suggestions and comments of P&R readers which are published in the March/April 2008 issue. Click here to read the published responses.
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