Affirmative action hanging in the balance at Penn State
by Mercedes Engle
Near the 2012 Presidential Election, the Penn State community will learn if affirmative action will continue to exist at public institutions of higher education, including Penn State.
The Supreme Court has decided to hear the case Fisher v. University of Texas sometime in November. In this case, Abigail Fisher, a Caucasian female, claims that the university rejected her because of her race.
The University of Texas uses the Top Ten Percent Law, which requires the university to admit the top 10 percent of graduating seniors from Texas high schools.
Fisher did not make that cutoff and was put into another pool of applicants that included in-state students who are not in the top ten percent, wrote Adam Liptak in the New York Times.
“The Top Ten Percent Law did not by its terms admit students on the basis of race, but underrepresented minorities were its announced target and their admission a large, if not primary, purpose,” stated Lyle W. Cayce, clerk, in a report for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Students who do not qualify for the Top Ten pool, like Abigail Fisher, are admitted to the University of Texas based on their academic and personal achievement indices. These indices include GPA, essay responses, standardized tests scores, socioeconomic status and race, according Cayce’s report.
Fisher is suing the university based on the claim that she was not admitted because of her race. This case could decide if affirmative action will be allowed in public universities and colleges’ admissions processes any longer.
Since Penn State receives government funding, it would be affected by such change.
A Look into Penn State’s Affirmative Action Policy and Admissions
Penn State’s current affirmative action plan is found in the university’s Framework to Foster Diversity at Penn State: 2010-15.
The document, updated recently from the 1998-2009 version by university President Rodney Erickson and The Vice Provost of Educational Equity, Dr. Terrell Jones, outlines Penn State’s plan to “…[build] a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable institution…”
The Framework lists seven different challenges to help Penn State ensure it is making the university diverse and welcoming.
Challenge number three focuses on “Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Student Body” and shows Penn State’s dedication to maintaining diversity within its undergraduate admissions.
In the 2011-2012 school year, Penn State collectively admitted 96,519 students into University Park and its 19 commonwealth campuses. This includes the five Special-Mission campuses such as Penn State’s World Campus and The Dickinson School of Law.
The admissions pamphlet, “Penn State Up Close: 2013 edition,” said that out of those students, 15 percent of them “were of color.”
Two-thirds of a student’s admittance to Penn State based off of his or her high school performance, said Cathy Schwab, the Director of Admissions Services and Evaluation. The other one-third is determined by “test scores and other factors,” including race.
“Penn State’s student body represents all 50 states and 131 countries,” states Penn State Up Close.
Schwab said that Penn State is very proactive in recruiting students from diverse backgrounds. Not only is race a factor, but a student’s geographic location plays a role as well.
The Strategic Plan for 2009-10 through 2013-14, a set of goals the university set to help it “achieve excellence,” includes the goal of enhancing diversity.
Diversity at Penn State is important to not only the administration, but to the students as well.
“Diversity is very important to me, [which] is actually one of the reasons I did not go to a [historically black College/University],” said senior and President of National Society for Minorities in Hospitality Victoria Elie, an African American. “I didn’t want to be restricted to just one culture…and that’s why I came to Penn State.”
Jasmyn Franklin, a sophomore majoring in Hospitality Management expressed similar feelings.
“[Diversity] is ranked high on my priority list because I am student that is very diverse” said Franklin.
Lovalerie King, associate professor of African American studies and women’s studies and director of the Africana Research Center, said she thinks “Penn State is finally making some real progress in terms of diversity.”
“Having fewer minority students would just turn back the hands of time,” she added.
However, some feel that affirmative action has negatively impacted the university.
Elie said she feels that although it helps bring diversity to Penn State, there are some African American students whom affirmative action has helped get accepted who “are not qualified” to be at Penn State.
Vice Provost of Educational Equity Terrell Jones said he feels that low-income students are not at a disadvantage when they apply for college, but rather during their K-12 years because of the school systems and environments. He also explained that getting into college is not the issue anymore.
He said the challenge is: “Can you get out?”
If affirmative action policies were no longer permitted, Jones said, “Penn State would be hindered, but would still find other ways to cope.”
Jones added that the university could still use first-generation/low-income college students as a factor in the admissions process, which would help ensure a mix of students without breaking the law. He said Penn State would find some way to be more diverse “because we have to.”
King, however, said terminating affirmative action would have noticeable effects.
“I would assume that I would see fewer [minority] students, and that they would need less from me,” she explained.
She said that the admitted students would be smart enough to “make it” at Penn State and would be able to cope with the change.
Penn State has many programs and clubs that have the goal of fostering diversity.
The Student Minority Advisory Recruitment Team, Alumni Interest Groups and The Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity are just a few.
Cathy Schwab said she believes that these programs are not going to go anywhere because [the programs] are how so many prospective students are attracted to the university.
“Penn State starts working with students while they are still in high school by sponsoring trips for them to visit the campuses,” Schwab said. “It also uses the Lion Ambassadors along with the Lion Scouts to help recruit students to Penn State.”
David Kuskowski, admissions director of marketing and recruitment in the Undergraduate Admissions Office, said he is glad the Supreme Court uses precedent to decide cases like Fisher v. University of Texas.
Based on his knowledge of the Supreme Court’s stance on diversity in colleges and universities, he said, “Diversity is a compelling interest in colleges and universities in creating their class; however, the decision making process should not be mechanical.”
Kuskowski agreed that Penn State would still find ways to meet its diversity goals even if it were forced to amend its affirmative action policy,
“It’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where we wouldn’t still believe diversity in the classroom is important towards the educational endeavor,” said Kuskowski. “So we are going to continue to try to create a class that is diverse as we can possibly be.”