Terence Chea, The Jamestown Sun, April 21, 2012
Fifteen years ago, California voters were asked: Should colleges consider a student’s race when they decide who gets in and who doesn’t?
With an emphatic “no,” they made California the first state to ban the use of race and ethnicity in public university admissions, as well as hiring and contracting.
Since then, California’s most selective public colleges and graduate schools have struggled to assemble student bodies that reflect the state’s demographic mix.
Universities around the country could soon face the same challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to revisit the thorny issue of affirmative action less than a decade after it endorsed the use of race as a factor in college admissions.
College officials are worried today’s more conservative court could limit or even ban the consideration of race in admissions decisions. A broad ruling could affect both public and private universities that practice affirmative action, a powerful tool for increasing campus diversity.
The effects of California’s ban, known as Proposition 209, are particularly evident at the world-renowned University of California, Berkeley campus, where the student body is highly diverse but hardly resembles the ethnic and racial fabric of the state.
With affirmative action outlawed, Asian American students have dominated admissions. The freshman class admitted to UC Berkeley this coming fall is 30 percent white and 46 percent Asian, according to newly released data. The share of admitted Asians is four times higher than their percentage in the state’s K-12 public schools.
But traditionally underrepresented Hispanic and black students remain so. In a state where Latinos make up half the K-12 public school population, only 15 percent of the Berkeley students are Hispanic. And the freshman class is less than 4 percent African Americans, although they make up 7 percent of the K-12 students.
UC Berkeley has tried to bolster diversity by expanding outreach to high schools in poor neighborhoods and considering applicants’ achievements in light of the academic opportunities available to them.
But officials say it’s hard to find large numbers of underrepresented minorities competitive enough for Berkeley, where only about one in five applicants are offered spots in the freshman class.
In addition, California’s highest-achieving minority students are heavily recruited by top private colleges that practice affirmative action and offer scholarships to minorities, administrators say.
Backers say affirmative-action policies are needed to combat the legacy of racial discrimination and level the playing field for minorities who are more likely to attend inferior high schools. Colleges benefit from diverse student bodies, and minority students often become leaders in their communities after graduating from top colleges.
The year after California’s ban took effect, the number of black, Latino and Native American students plummeted by roughly half at Berkeley and UCLA, the UC system’s most sought-after campuses.
Voters in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington and Nebraska have since approved similar bans with similar results.
At the University of Washington, the number of underrepresented minorities dropped by a third after voters banned affirmative action in 1998.
Affirmative-action advocates say Proposition 209 has created a “new Jim Crow regime” in California, where elite public colleges are dominated by white and Asian students while black and Hispanic students are relegated to less prestigious campuses.
“It is extraordinary that the vast majority of high school graduates in this state are minorities, and they’re denied the opportunities to go to their state universities,” said attorney Shanta Driver for the group By Any Means Necessary, which filed suit to overturn the ban.
UC officials have tried to increase campus diversity by admitting the top 9 percent of graduates from each high school, conducting a “holistic review” of applications that decreases the weight of standardized test scores and eliminating the requirement to take SAT subject exams.
“We’re very interested in a diverse student body that reflects the state of California and the nation,” said UC provost Larry Pitts. “We have reasonable diversity, but not as much as we would like.”