06/25/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

CU-Boulder Index Aims To Maintain Diversity If Affirmative Action Is Outlawed

THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO -- anticipating the possibility that affirmative action measures could someday be banned in college admissions -- has been using an in-depth index to glean information about the socioeconomic status of its applicants.

The CU-developed system doesn't consider an applicant's race. But, like race, it is used as a "secondary consideration" when considering a potential student.

CU officials say the system could help maintain diversity on campus should affirmative action programs be outlawed.

Affirmative action programs at colleges are safe for now, as the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent a high-profile case on race-based admissions back to a lower court for another look. Higher education officials across the country, including those at CU, have been paying close attention to the affirmative action case -- Fisher v. University of Texas -- as it challenged the Austin campus' consideration of race as a factor in admitting students.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 7-1 opinion, which says schools must prove there are "no workable race-neutral alternatives" to achieving diverse campuses. The ruling puts colleges on notice that their admissions policies, if they include race, could be challenged in lower courts.

A 2008 ballot measure in Colorado sought to ban race from being considered in college admissions. The measure narrowly failed, but it prompted CU to come up with the class-based affirmative action method that has potential to increase socioeconomic diversity while also maintaining racial diversity among students.

Since it's been in place, the university has netted its two most diverse incoming freshman classes, in the fall semesters of 2011 and 2012.

Last fall, 19 percent of the freshmen in the incoming class were minorities, according to a recent diversity report the university presented to the Board of Regents.

Admissions officers, with the index, are able to mine information about students' socioeconomic backgrounds, including their families' income levels, whether their parents attended college and the percentage of students at their high schools who received free or reduced-price lunches.

Matthew Gaertner, who earned a Ph.D. from CU's School of Education, worked with the admissions office to develop the system while he was a doctoral candidate.

"What the system does is it identifies disadvantaged applicants and identifies overachievers, and many times they are the same kids," said Gaertner, who is now a research scientist with the Pearson Center for College and Career Success.

Those applicants might then receive a boost in the application process.

Admissions Director Kevin MacLennan said Monday the school's "disadvantage index" and the "overachievement index" certainly "provide promise," though he's unsure whether they could fully replace the consideration of race if affirmative action is ever banned in college admissions.

CU-Boulder's admissions office has a set of primary factors it reviews when considering a student for admission, and those include grade-point averages, test scores and the level and rigor of courses taken during high school.

Race and the CU-developed index are among a set of several secondary factors that may be considered.

Ultimately, MacLennan said, the admissions office wants to make sure that admitted students will be able to excel at CU and graduate.

Melissa Hart, a CU law professor, authored a brief in the Fisher case on behalf of Latino students in Texas. In 2008, she ran the campaign against Amendment 46, the ballot initiative seeking to ban affirmative action in college admissions and hiring.

When compared to other schools, especially private colleges, CU doesn't use race much in its admissions considerations, she said.

The class-based system, she said, has been the focus of studies seeking to determine whether it can promote diversity.

"It remains the case that there is a tight link between race and poverty," she said. "Obviously that's not absolute, but there are some correlations."

Hart and Gaertner co-authored an article, "Considering Class: College Access and Diversity," which discusses CU's admissions policies. The article is scheduled to be published in the Harvard Law and Policy Review later this summer.

If the high court were to overrule Grutter v. Bollinger -- a 2003 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that race could play a limited role in the admissions policies of universities -- affirmative action policies in admissions at U.S. universities could be threatened.

CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard said the university will continue to keep tabs on cases concerning affirmative action.

"As the Texas courts reconsider the Fisher case, and as other cases come before the U.S. Supreme Court, the University of Colorado-Boulder remains confident that its standards of admission are consistent with the parameters outlined by the high court (Monday) and in previous rulings," Hilliard said.

The Texas affirmative action case originally was brought in 2008 by a white student, Abigail Fisher, whose attorneys argue she was racially discriminated against by the school when she was denied admission.

She has since earned her bachelor's degree from Louisiana State University.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or ___



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