Michigan Takes a New Path to School Diversity

Times Staff Writer

The University of Michigan, told by the U.S. Supreme Court in June to scrap its admissions system of awarding bonus points to minority applicants, on Thursday unveiled a new application that asks all students to write a short essay on diversity.

Beginning this fall, those who hope to go to the Ann Arbor campus will be asked to write 250 words on how they can contribute to a “diverse educational community” or how they have been affected by “cultural diversity.”

An expanded team will read through more than 25,000 applications, including the essays, in search of students who can contribute to the “intellectual vibrancy and diversity of the student body,” school officials said.

The new admissions plan is the latest effort in the long struggle over affirmative action.


Since the mid-1970s, most colleges and universities have sought to enroll more minority students, but several have been sued successfully for using quota-like policies that put significant weight on a student’s race or ethnicity.

In its June ruling, the Supreme Court endorsed the goal of seeking racial diversity on campus, but struck down Michigan’s policy of awarding a 20-point bonus to undergraduate applicants who were black, Latino or Native American. The points were awarded on a 150-point scale that also took into account an applicant’s grade-point average and SAT scores, the quality of the student’s high school and the level of difficulty of the student’s course of study, among other factors.

In a second ruling, the court upheld the admissions policy at Michigan’s law school because a student’s race was used as only one factor in an “individualized” assessment.

On Thursday, Michigan officials said they planned to adapt this individualized approach to handling the huge volume of applications for undergraduates.


Each year, the Ann Arbor campus receives about 25,000 applications and accepts more than 12,000 students. From this group, about 5,200 enroll and start classes each fall, said Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the university.

The new admissions policy will be more costly and time-consuming for the university, officials said in a briefing.

“We will be seeking a critical mass” of minority students, said Paul N. Courant, the provost at Michigan. In recent years, between 11% and 17% of students the university has enrolled have been minorities, and Courant said he expected that range would remain unchanged.

He stressed that traditional academic factors would be most significant in the new policy, just as in the old one.

“A student’s high school grades, the quality of his or her high school curriculum, the competitiveness of the high school and scores on standardized tests will continue to be the most important criteria,” Courant said.

An applicant is also asked to reveal family income and educational background, as well as the individual’s personal interests and achievements.

“We would like to know as much about the students as possible,” Courant said.

In recent years, essays have returned as a requirement for more college applications.


The Michigan applicants will be asked to write three essays. The first deals with diversity; students must respond to one of the following:

“At the University of Michigan, we are committed to building an academically superb and widely diverse educational community. What would you as an individual bring to our campus community?” Or, “Describe an experience you’ve had where cultural diversity -- or a lack thereof -- has made a difference to you.”

Undergraduate applicants also will be asked to submit a second short essay about a memorable book, an inspiring person or a challenging outside activity, among other topics.

Then, in a third essay of 500 words, students will be asked to describe a “setback, failure or ethical dilemma” they have faced or an “issue of local, national or international concern.”

University officials said they were seeking insights about the students and how they think.

“There is no right answer to the diversity questions,” said Theodore L. Spencer, director of undergraduate admissions. “It is trying to gain more information about that student. It is an open invitation for the student to describe himself.”

Lawyers for the Center for Individual Rights, which sued Michigan on behalf of two rejected white applicants, said they will monitor how this new policy works.

“They have used all the right words: a highly individualized review where race is only one of many factors and not given special weight. But we are more interested in what the school does, rather than what they say,” said Curt A. Levey, a spokesman for the Washington-based group. “If race is an automatic preference or a decisive factor, then the new system is just as unconstitutional as the old one.”


The group’s lawsuit against the university was sent back to a federal judge. Levey said his group may seek a court order that would permit a continued monitoring of how the university admits new students.