College diversity can survive high court’s decision

It’s fair to criticize Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard for suggesting his school has too many white students in comparison with people of color. It was an unfortunate way to frame the importance of a diverse student body to the higher education mission.

Shepard gave the regrettable impression that he thinks universities should decrease the number of white students they enroll. We’re confident he meant that colleges — and the nation as a whole — benefit when more students of all races earn university degrees.

Three years ago, census data showed that, for the first time, there were more babies of color born in the U.S. than white children. In 15 to 20 years, when those children comprise the nation’s workforce, will they have the education and the job skills to move America forward in a global economy?

Many years ago, the nation’s farsighted colleges and universities adopted race-conscious admission policies primarily to help close the learning gap between generally more affluent white students and lower-income people of color.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision last week in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action makes it easier for state voters to end those policies, leaving many to wonder if fewer students of color will gain college admission.

The experience at the University of Washington may allay those concerns.

After Washington voters approved Initiative 200 in 1998, which banned policies that give special consideration to race, ethnicity and gender, UW saw a sharp and immediate decline in minority student applications.

But UW didn’t give up on striving for diversity. It aggressively recruited minority students. It launched a student-initiated and run Dream Project that puts student volunteers into high schools to help students navigate the daunting application process. And it created the Husky Promise program to assist economically disadvantaged students.

Today, UW exceeds pre-I-200 diversity levels. Seven other states that effectively eliminated affirmative action policies around the same time had a similar experience.

Olympia resident and WWU trustee Ralph Munro says his school has a similar program, called Compass to Campus, where college students spend time in middle and high schools. WWU even reaches down to mentor sixth-grade kids and host them for a day on campus.

A 2012 research project by the Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., found that colleges in states that banned race-based policies had shifted to focus on family incomes. Seven of the 10 schools studied, including UW, had met or exceeded prior levels of racial diversity.

The author of that study, Richard Kahlenberg, said universities had found “ways to creatively promote diversity by reaching out to economically disadvantaged students of all races, which is something I think they should have been doing all along.”

Still, it will take more effort — and more state funding for higher education — to ensure that students of color and students from low-income families have equal access to a college education.

Munro put it this way, “We have an increasing number of Asian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander kids in the state and ... we do not reflect the proper numbers of African-Americans and American Indian kids compared to the population as a whole. Our state will fail if we don’t provide higher education to these kids.”