Posted on June 23, 2023

How U.C. Berkeley Tried to Buoy Enrollment of Black Students Without Affirmative Action

Sharon Bernstein, Reuters, June 18, 2023

In the 25 years since California voters banned all consideration of race in college admissions, the state has spent more than $500 million to help create diverse student bodies across the University of California system – with some success.

Yet in classes at the University of California at Berkeley, philosophy major James Bennett, who is Black and Filipino, sees almost no one who looks like him.

“I’ve only met two other Black students within all of my classes that I’ve been in,” said Bennett, who enrolled at the system’s flagship school in 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month in a pair of cases that could end affirmative action in college admissions nationwide. If that happens, universities that have used race-conscious admissions to boost enrollment of minority students will look to California, one of nine states that already prohibits such considerations at its public colleges.

California has pioneered race-blind efforts in college admissions by using factors such as socio-economic status and location to identify disadvantaged students, many of whom are from immigrant or diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Those efforts helped the state’s top public colleges make up much of the ground lost in diversity in the years right after California voters passed the ban on affirmative action in 1996.

Black and Hispanic student enrollment at many U.C. campuses still lags the state’s general population, however.

Berkeley, the system’s most elite school based on high school GPA, offers the starkest example of the struggle to boost their numbers, particularly for Black students. In the fall 2022 freshman class, just 228 out of nearly 7,000 students – about 3% – identified as Black.

Femi Ogundele, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor of enrollment and dean of undergraduate admissions, who joined Berkeley from Stanford in 2019, said the U.C. system needed to better reflect the broader demographic breakdown of the state, one of the most diverse in the nation.

According to the latest census data, the state’s population is 6.5% Black, 40% Hispanic, 35% white, 16% Asian and 1.7% Native American.


The dearth of Black students has itself complicated recruitment efforts to expand their ranks, despite its distinction as the top public university in U.S. News and World Report’s list of Best Global Universities, and the campus’ reputation for progressive politics. {snip}

Ogundele, who has made improving diversity a centerpiece of his work, came to Berkeley to bolster recruitment and diversity.


In the fall of 1998, after the Proposition 209 ballot initiative banning affirmative action went into effect, the number of Black and Hispanic students immediately dropped across U.C. campuses.


At Berkeley, the state-funded bridges Multicultural Resource Center has worked to increase applicants from under-represented backgrounds and then offer food, counseling and other support once they arrive.

Allexys Cornejo, born to a teenage mom in a Salvadoran refugee family and a C-student in high school, said outreach from the bridges program while she was attending community college helped her get into Berkeley {snip}

Freshman enrollment of Hispanic students across the nine U.C. campuses stood at 27% in 2022, up dramatically from 15% in 1995 before affirmative action ended, but still well below population figures. Berkeley’s figures last year were among the lowest in the system.

Black student enrollment across the system – which hovered at 3 or 4% for decades after the affirmative action ban – last year rose to 5%.

While other campuses in the system have struggled to enroll Black students, the issue has been particularly painful at Berkeley, which under affirmative action had exceeded the system overall in enrollment of Black students. Even with its efforts in recruitment and retention, Black students represented only 3% of the incoming 2022 freshman class, or about half of what they represented in 1995.

Asian students made up 43% of Berkeley’s freshmen in the fall of 2022, up from 37% in 1995. White students accounted for 20%, down from 30% under affirmative action.