UC Ethnic Shift Revives Proposition 209 Debate

Eleanor Yang Su, Union-Tribune (San Diego), Nov. 27, 2006

Will Asian-Americans one day make up a majority of students at the University of California?

The number of Asian-American students at University of California campuses far outpaces their population increase in the state. These students attended a physics class at UC San Diego. This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the passage of Proposition 209, the state initiative that banned using racial preferences in public university admissions and state hiring and contracting.

At the highly competitive University of California, where grades and test scores drive admissions, the enrollment trend is clear: Asian-American student numbers have grown the most, far outpacing their population increase in the state.

Asian-Americans—14.1 percent of California’s 2005 high school graduating class—make up 41.8 percent of the freshman class at UC campuses, up from 36 percent a decade ago.

Meanwhile, blacks at 3 percent and whites at 32.2 percent make up smaller shares of UC’s freshman class than they did previously. Latinos account for 16.3 percent of UC freshmen, up from 13 percent a decade ago, but still less than half their 36.5 percentage of state high school graduates.

The changes to UC’s student demographics are definitive, but many continue to debate Proposition 209’s merits—and its effects.

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The ethnic makeup at colleges after Proposition 209, particularly the dramatic drop in the enrollment of African-Americans, has prompted some to talk about repealing it.

Others, including one of the measure’s most vocal proponents, former UC regent Ward Connerly, say the end of racial preferences has been a boon to the state by bringing it closer to being race-blind.

What’s driving growth

As a whole, Asian-American student numbers at UC have grown more than any other ethnic group each year since Proposition 209 passed in 1996. (At California State University’s 23 campuses, the ethnicity of its freshman class has remained generally steady over the last decade.)

Asian undergraduates already make up the largest racial group at seven of the nine UC undergraduate campuses. Only University of California Santa Cruz and University of California Santa Barbara have remained majority white in the past decade. At University of California Irvine, Asians make up a majority of undergraduates, or 51 percent.

Many academics agree that one thing driving the student numbers at UC is the growth of the Asian population in California. Another factor is Asians’ prioritizing of education and economic ability to choose schools that better prepare students for college, said Robert Teranishi, an assistant professor at New York University, who has studied Asian-American trends in higher education.

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It’s hard to generalize from the data because Asians are not monolithic, he said. The Asian category includes several different populations—such as Chinese, East Indian/Pakistani and Vietnamese—all of which have different cultural backgrounds and rates of admission to UC.

If the high Asian numbers at UC are reflective of anything, Teranishi said, it is UC’s heavy reliance on grades and test scores.

The UC admissions process has two phases: the first looks at grades and test scores to determine who is eligible for the university. The second part involves specific campuses considering academic and non-academic elements to select whom to admit.

Of all the racial groups, Asians have the largest portion of students meeting UC eligibility requirements. In 2003, 31.4 percent of Asians met the requirements, compared with an overall average of 14.4 percent among all California high school seniors.

The university system also accepts the top 4 percent of each senior class in California high schools. That policy has tended to benefit poor whites and low-income Asians, said Frances Contreras, an education professor at the University of Washington, whose doctoral dissertation was on the effects of Proposition 209.

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Other impacts

Some say Proposition 209 has done great harm. Mostly notably, they point to the precipitous drop in black student numbers at UC.

There are 96 blacks in the freshman class of about 4,800 at the University of California Los Angeles this year. About 50 black freshmen are enrolled at the University of California San Diego this fall, making up only 1 percent of the class. If Proposition 209 remains in place, critics say, complete ethnic groups will lose access to the state’s most prestigious public universities.

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Blanco said it was unfair to judge all students by the same admissions criteria when the high school resources available to them, such as honors class offerings, vary so dramatically across the state.

Connerly said the criticisms were overblown, and that opponents of Proposition 209 were out of step with the 54.6 percent of voters who had approved the constitutional amendment.

“Yeah, the number of black kids at UCLA, Berkeley and San Diego went down,” Connerly said, “but when you really look at that in the context of the state, there are relatively few people going to UC. That’s a very small issue.”

The greater good achieved, Connerly said, is that “Proposition 209 has hastened the transition from a race-conscious society to one where race has no place in American life or law.”

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Classroom diversity

Researchers across the country have trained a keen eye on shifts in diversity following Proposition 209.

“In the narrow view, some Asians are beneficiaries, and Latinos and blacks are losers; but really, everyone’s a loser,” said Gary Orfield, an education and social policy professor at Harvard. “There may be enough minorities to have one or two kids in a classroom, but not enough to have a rich relationship.”

Diversity in the classroom has a tremendous impact on helping with students’ critical thinking and social skills, said Sylvia Hurtado, a UCLA professor and director of its Higher Education Research Institute.

Hurtado, who spent five years studying the impact of diversity on the learning experience, says a key to good teaching is interaction. When ethnically diverse classes interact, it benefits the learning environment and prepares students for the complexities of the workplace.

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Students are divided on the issue.

At UCSD, nearly 53 percent of this year’s freshman class is Asian-American. Whites make up about 28 percent and Latinos 12 percent.

“Having diversity is a plus, but it doesn’t feel like my education has [suffered] because of the drop in numbers,” said Tiffany Yu, a UCSD freshman.

But UCSD sophomore Zach Vickers said students would benefit if race were considered in college admissions. Vickers is from the Northern California city of Alameda, where blacks and Latinos make up 15 percent of the population.

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What’s in the future?

Some predict that certain minority groups will continue to shrink at UC.

That’s prompted a group of influential UC academics to propose changes to UC’s decades-old eligibility system.

By relying only on course grades and standardized test scores, UC’s eligibility may not reflect a wide enough definition of merit, said Michael Brown, a UC Santa Barbara education professor. Adding the consideration of non-academic factors, such as leadership, initiative or improvement in grades in the course of one’s high school career, may better gauge a student’s potential, Brown said.

UC’s faculty board that considers admissions changes is examining the eligibility system, and if it formulates a proposal, it will be presented to the UC Board of Regents. Changes to the system could reduce the number of Asians and whites admitted, Brown said, unless UC raises its overall enrollment.

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