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As Justices weigh Affirmative Action, Michigan offers an alternative

Kedra Ishop, the enrollment manager at the University of Michigan, helped increase the number of minority students in the 2015 freshman class. Credit Laura McDermott for The New York Times

Kedra Ishop got results.

A year after Dr. Ishop began her new job here as enrollment manager at the University of Michigan — responsible for shaping the makeup of incoming classes — the university increased the number of minority students in the 2015 freshman class by almost 20 percent, to the highest percentage since 2005.

African-Americans gained the most. It was a significant change at an institution where minority enrollment plunged after Michigan voters banned affirmative action in 2006.

“It’s a courtship,” Dr. Ishop said, explaining the strategy.

Now, Dr. Ishop may be showing the way forward for many colleges as the Supreme Court considers a challenge to the affirmative action policy of the University of Texas at Austin, where she honed her skills. The case could result in a decision that applies narrowly to the Texas process, or it could take the bigger leap of ending the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

If the court rules more broadly, public and private universities across the country that want to create more racially diverse classes will have to find new ways of doing so.

The University of Michigan, a highly competitive public university, has long been at the center of affirmative action battles, with two landmark Supreme Court cases, both decided in 2003.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court upheld the use of race as a factor in the university’s law school admissions, saying it helped achieve a “critical mass” of minority students. But the decision foresaw a day, perhaps 25 years in the future, when race-conscious admissions would no longer be necessary.

In Gratz v. Bollinger, however, the court struck down a system of undergraduate admissions that automatically awarded 20 points, a fifth of those needed to guarantee admission, to “underrepresented minorities” — African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. The court said the point system was not individualized enough and violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In 2006, Michigan voters took their own stand on the matter, in a referendum banning affirmative action at public colleges and universities.

Lee Bollinger, who was Michigan’s president during the Supreme Court cases and now leads Columbia University, considers this chain of events a serious blow. “What is the reality that we are trying to address in our society, including at colleges and universities trying to build diverse student bodies?” he said in an interview. “It really is trying to overcome two centuries of legacies of discrimination and active disempowerment and wealth transfer.”

But Richard Sander, an economist and law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the most prominent critics of affirmative action, said that even though small racial preferences may be justified, when there is a very large disparity between the entering credentials of white and black students, black students become demoralized by their inability to compete and are less likely to succeed.

Dr. Sander said he thought colleges were more concerned with having “a politically correct balanced student body,” in part by admitting wealthy black and Hispanic students, than with the harder work of finding truly disadvantaged students and giving them a chance to thrive.

What constitutes a critical mass, as the Supreme Court put it, of minority students at a place like Michigan remains subjective. As far as Robby Greenfield, a senior engineering student there and the former treasurer of the Black Student Union, is concerned, that number is still elusive.

“There needs to be enough to culturally shift the dialogue on campus,” said Mr. Greenfield, who is from Atlanta and whose parents are doctors.

After thinking about it for a moment, he added, only half-facetiously, “I think it should be the same as the percentage of Michigan football players who are black.”

The battle over affirmative action has been waged across the country as Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington have also banned the practice.

The results, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a public policy research group, have been mixed. Seven of 11 flagship universities in those states achieved as much or more diversity through strategies like guaranteeing admission for top graduates from each high school in the state, giving priority to low-income students, improving financial aid packages, stepping up recruitment and eliminating legacy preferences.

The main exceptions, the foundation said, were the three most elite universities: the University of Michigan; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Given the long-term trend, Michigan officials are wary of calling their approach an unqualified success. They say one year is not enough to consider the matter closed, especially after years of sluggish minority enrollment.

In a brief that Michigan filed in the Texas case, officials told the justices that the overall drop in minority enrollment since 2006 was a “cautionary tale” about the difficulty of choosing a diverse class without being able to consider race. They said that since the statewide ban, a panoply of recruitment and outreach efforts had fallen short. Using low income as a proxy for race also had not been effective, they said, because there are far more white students than black students in Michigan who come from low-income families and have the threshold test scores for admission.

And they said that even now, the overall numbers of minority students are still lower than they were in 2006: 12 percent down for undergraduates and 14.5 percent lower for professional-school students.

A major problem, the brief argued, is that other elite institutions draw on the same population of blacks and Hispanics that it wants to admit. On this point, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, agreed, but he said the problem was that just about everyone else has affirmative action, not that Michigan lacks it.

“The University of Wisconsin can give you a preference, Princeton can give you a preference,” said Mr. Kahlenberg, who favors preferences for low-income students as a way of achieving diversity. “So if you’re getting into Michigan without a preference, you’re probably getting into an even more prestigious institution with a preference, and where are you going to go? You’re not going to go to Michigan. So Michigan has unilaterally disarmed in selection of black and Latino students.”

Mr. Greenfield, the engineering student, scoffed at this logic, saying that in his personal experience, it was not true that the Ivy League and Michigan were accepting the same students.

At Michigan, Dr. Ishop has focused on maximizing the number of students offered admission who enroll, what educators call “yield.” At Michigan, the yield is close to 70 percent for in-state undergraduates, which hardly changed from 2014 to 2015; for all freshmen, it was 45 percent last fall, up from 41 percent in 2014.

After the 2015 freshman class was offered admission, everyone from faculty members to deans to alumni to students made personal calls to encourage students to attend. Student aid was increased and relabeled as “tuition” scholarships, because families were found to respond to that word more than to the dollar amount.

In addition, the size of the freshman class was cut, by 434 students to 6,071, and no one was admitted off the waiting list, which favors higher-income — often white and Asian — students, who can afford to put down a deposit to reserve admission at another college while they wait.

While the number of black and Hispanic freshmen jumped by a combined 23.5 percent, the number of whites and Asians fell. Black enrollment gained the most, rising to 5.11 percent of the freshman class from 3.84 percent the year before, a gain that though small, just 58 students, has been surprisingly visible, students said.

“There’s black people everywhere,” Mr. Greenfield said.

Michigan students have expressed their sense of racial isolation by sharing experiences through a popular Twitter hashtag, #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan). Mr. Greenfield said that in the wake of such protests, which began in 2013, the university had shown a new sensitivity, by improving minority enrollment and approving the construction of a $10 million multicultural center.

Julian Turley, who is also black, grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. His mother teaches in the second grade, and his father, who died a year ago, was a truck driver. Mr. Turley did not get into Michigan straight out of high school, but he transferred from a community college after raising his grades a bit. He was glad he had been given a second chance.

The difference between community college and Michigan had been “mind-boggling,” the senior said, peering through large tortoise-framed glasses as he ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant, part of his goal to try every restaurant in Ann Arbor before he graduates.

“It’s been a lot like drinking water from a fire hose,” he said of attending Michigan. “Whoa — there is so much opportunity.”

Arnold Reed, a senior who came to Michigan from a private school in the affluent Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield, and who is applying to law school, said being one of a few black students on campus had made him stronger: “I have been driven because of those low numbers to succeed.”

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