Melissa Korn, Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2023
The Supreme Court says American colleges can no longer consider race in their admissions decisions. Instead, they can try to build racially diverse campuses through less-direct means. Experience suggests that is going to be a hard slog.
Nine states, including California, Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas, Florida and New Hampshire, have already banned race-conscious admissions, mainly as a result of voter initiatives. Selective universities in some of those places say they are eager to reflect the demographics of the states they serve, in part because they believe a diverse population enriches students’ educational experiences.
They have pursued a range of new approaches and doubled down on others to boost the numbers of Black, Hispanic and Native American students on campus, including expanding recruiting in minority neighborhoods and considering proxies for race, such as socioeconomic status—and yet consistently fell short of their goals.
At the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California, the share of Black and Hispanic students fell by about half immediately after a voter referendum in 1996. Despite a bevy of recruiting and admissions initiatives, the schools still aren’t enrolling Hispanic students in a way that reflects state demographics, data show.
“They went through the whole playbook and still are not where they were before,” said Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Management who studied the impact of changes to University of California admissions policies. “It’s clear that California or other states that have experienced affirmative action bans do not offer a silver bullet.”
Among the reasons why these efforts have fallen short: Colleges often look first to socioeconomic status as an alternative to race, given the significant overlap between racial minorities and low-income students. But it’s a flawed proxy. There are more low-income white households than there are low-income Black and Hispanic households combined.
Another approach guarantees admission to top graduates from every high school. That may yield more Black or Hispanic admissions only if the schools are dominated by such students. Diverse high schools don’t move the needle much.
Some attempts to reverse-engineer particular racial diversity levels—for instance, strongly favoring first-generation college students who grew up speaking Spanish in one-parent households or setting different income thresholds for certain groups of students—may be legally fraught, said Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The University of California has navigated this race-neutral terrain for decades, after a 1996 ballot initiative called Proposition 209 barred the use of race in admissions decisions at public universities. In 2020, voters rejected an effort to reverse the policy.
Since Prop 209 passed, the university has spent hundreds of millions of dollars expanding the pipeline of prospective minority students. The system, which has 10 campuses across the state, nine with undergraduate programs, built partnerships with high schools and community-based organizations in low-income and more diverse neighborhoods. It stepped up recruiting at churches and nonprofits such as Black Girls Code. Once it received applications, it also paid attention to biographical details such as whether someone held a job throughout high school or the first in their family to attend college.
While the proportion of students who are Asian remained far higher than their share of new high-school graduates, Black and Hispanic enrollment at top UC schools has lagged behind. Hispanic students made up 53% of new high-school graduates in California in 2021, compared with 27% of first-year students at the University of California, Berkeley and 36% across the UC system.
Black students, meanwhile, were 5% of the 2021 high school graduating class, 2% of first-year students at Berkeley and 2.4% of first-year students systemwide.
Texas guaranteed admission beginning in 1998 to any state university for students in the top 10% of their graduating classes, though lawmakers subsequently relaxed that requirement for the most coveted destination, the University of Texas at Austin. Because of limited capacity, UT Austin now offers automatic admission to just the top 6%.
The Texas policy slightly expanded the roster of high schools represented at UT Austin and the main Texas A&M University campus in College Station, according to an 18-year review of admissions and enrollment data by professors from Texas A&M and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The researchers determined any increase in racial diversity at the universities was more likely tied to state demographics than to the policy, as schools that previously didn’t send students to the flagships still didn’t do so en masse.
Race-based and income-based affirmative action aren’t mutually exclusive, and opponents of using race in admissions say schools can diversify instead by giving extra consideration to low-income students.
Socioeconomic status turns out to be a weak proxy for race. In the U.S. the median income for non-Hispanic white households—$78,000—was about one-third higher than it was for Hispanic households in 2021, and the gap was even larger with Black families. Yet there were more than three times as many white households earning under $50,000 in 2021 as there were Black or Hispanic households with similar earnings, census data show.