In California, Push for College Diversity Starts Earlier

Richard Perez-Pena, New York Times, May 7, 2013

As the Supreme Court weighs a case that could decide the future of affirmative action in college admissions, California offers one glimpse of a future without it.

California was one of the first states to abolish affirmative action, after voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996. Across the University of California system, Latinos fell to 12 percent of newly enrolled state residents in the mid-1990s from more than 15 percent, and blacks declined to 3 percent from 4 percent. At the most competitive campuses, at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the decline was much steeper.

Eventually, the numbers rebounded. Until last fall, 25 percent of new students were Latino, reflecting the booming Hispanic population, and 4 percent were black. A similar pattern of decline and recovery followed at other state universities that eliminated race as a factor in admissions.

If the Supreme Court justices, who are expected to rule in the coming weeks on a case involving the University of Texas at Austin, decide to curtail or abolish the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions nationwide, then the experience here and in other states that have outlawed affirmative action in college admissions decisions—including Florida, Michigan and Washington—could point to new ways for public universities to try to compose a racially and economically diverse student body.

Those states have tried a series of new approaches to choosing students, giving applicants a leg up for overcoming disadvantages like poverty, language barriers, low-performing schools and troubled neighborhoods. That process has drawn heavy scrutiny, but in California, it is only half of a two-pronged approach. Disadvantaged students in poor neighborhoods, like Erick Ramirez, a senior at Anaheim High School, are benefiting from the state university systems’ growing efforts to cultivate applicants starting in middle school.

“We’ve worked very hard to widen the pipeline, and there is still an enormous need to do more,” said Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system.

The results of California’s efforts offer some measure of satisfaction to supporters and critics alike. Both sides hail the U.C. system’s strides toward economic—and not just racial—diversity; opponents of affirmative action claim that as vindication of their argument that it primarily benefits middle-class minority members. Supporters of race-conscious admissions acknowledge that the system has reversed the initial decline in black and Hispanic enrollment, though they say that is not enough. {snip}

So California’s public universities, and some of their counterparts around the country, have embedded themselves deeply in disadvantaged communities, working with schools, students and parents to identify promising teenagers and get more of them into college.

It is not enough, university administrators say, to change the way they select students; they must also change the students themselves, and begin to do so long before the time arrives to fill out applications.

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The need for such intervention unites people like Mr. Yudof, who believes that race should be a factor in admissions, and Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal-leaning research group, who is a prominent critic of race-based affirmative action.

“If you’re serious about doing admissions based on disadvantage, it requires a lot of outreach,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “It’s the right thing to do, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap.”

The University of California, Irvine, alone spends more than $7 million a year on that outreach, with a few hundred people working on it—mostly part time, and not always for pay—and reaching into dozens of poor neighborhoods in its region, said Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, director of the university’s Center for Educational Partnerships.

Many of the programs predate Proposition 209, but in the years after the ban took effect the University of California system’s spending on them jumped to $85 million from $18 million, before shrinking again in the last decade.

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To qualify for the state universities, California students must earn at least Cs in higher-level courses — and many of those students are still rejected. Over the last three years, 59 percent of Asians who graduated from California high schools met the university requirements, 44 percent of whites, 28 percent of blacks and 27 percent of Latinos.

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University officials admit that it is hard to know how much difference these programs make. Most of the students they reach go on to some level of college, but those tend to be among the better students in their schools. In examining changes in U.C. enrollment, there is no way to tease out the effects of new admissions standards versus outreach to low-income students.

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