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Release: Jan. 27, 2003

UI professor studies Texas affirmative action alternative

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear challenges to the University of Michigan affirmative action admission policies, a University of Iowa professor is part of a research team that says at least one common alternative to affirmative action doesn’t work.

Kevin Leicht, a sociology professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was co-primary-investigator in a study of Texas’s “10 Percent Plan,” which guarantees admission to any state university for all high school students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. Texas implemented this plan after a federal court ruled in the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case that race could not be used as a factor in college admissions.

Leicht joined Princeton University sociology professor Marta Tienda in analyzing application, admission and enrollment data from 1990 to 2000 for the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, the only public Texas universities that had practiced affirmative action prior to the 1996 Hopwood decision.

Their study, “Closing the Gap?: Texas College Enrollments Before and After Affirmative Action,” shows that rates of admission and enrollment for minority applicants at Texas' flagship institutions declined significantly after the ban on affirmative action. It also shows that students in the top 10 percent of their classes were nearly certain to be admitted to the flagship institutions even before the Hopwood decision, indicating that the 10 percent plan does not go far enough in expanding access for a diverse student population.

“The 10 percent plan is not a substitute for affirmative action,” Leicht said. “If the goal is to maintain and increase racial and ethnic diversity, it is clear that this is not an effective alternative.”

Leicht’s involvement with the study grew out of a 1998 conference, The Future of Affirmative Action, hosted by the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. He said that his research residency at the Obermann Center and the conference there provided a vital boost in the early stages of the five-year study and allowed the group to put together a successful application for funding from the Ford Foundation.

Jay Semel, director of the Obermann Center, said he is delighted but not surprised that Leicht’s project has achieved national visibility and importance. “Leicht’s intensity and the timeliness of the topic made the conference here an electrifying event.”

Leicht and his colleagues plan to continue by analyzing recently obtained data on applicants, admissions and enrollment from more than a dozen other public and private Texas institutions. The team is also studying the results of a statewide survey of Texas college seniors conducted in spring 2002 in an effort to better understand the college decision-making process. They expect that study to help explain why the percentage of minorities among college applicants has declined in Texas since 1996.

Leicht can be reached at kevin-leicht@uiowa.edu. A copy of the study and additional information is available on the Web http://www.texastop10.princeton.edu/