Affirmative Action: Student diversity impacted by race-neutral admissions policy

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series about affirmative action at the University of California.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which challenged the constitutionality of the university’s race-conscious admissions policies. This debate has brought renewed attention to the University of California’s struggle to achieve diversity following a ban on affirmative-action-based admissions policies.

The UC system acknowledged this struggle in a brief administrators submitted to the court in August expressing support for UT Austin’s race-conscious admissions policies and frustration at the restrictions a California voter-imposed proposition places on achieving a level that “encompasses the broad diversity of … California.”

“At present the compelling government interest in student body diversity cannot be fully realized at selective institutions without taking race into account in undergraduate admissions decisions,” the brief states.

In the brief, the university contends that the implementation of Proposition 209 — a ballot measure passed in November 1996 that prohibits preferential treatment by the state in public employment, education or contracting based on race, ethnicity or gender — has caused a decline of underrepresented minorities in the UC system.

A shifting student population

Since 1998, when Prop. 209 was first implemented, the percentage of underrepresented minority applicants who are admitted to the university each year has failed to reach percentages equivalent to the proportion of underrepresented minority applicants admitted prior to the ban. In 1995, about 81 percent of underrepresented minority applicants to the freshman class were admitted. In 1998, about 73 percent of underrepresented minority student applicants were admitted. And by 2011, that proportion had fallen to about 64 percent of total underrepresented minority applicants for that year.

“Since Prop. 209, we cannot use affirmative action,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein. “We have to do other methods, which we are doing. It takes time, and it takes effort, and it is not as efficient as affirmative action, but that is the law. Because we do not have the tool of affirmative, the progress has been slow in increasing diversity.”

To work around the ban, the university introduced the Eligibility in the Local Context program in 2001, which guarantees the top graduating seniors from each participating high school admission at a UC campus. Additionally, in 2002, admissions offices began a comprehensive application review process that broadened the admissions criteria to assess applicants’ personal and academic achievement in the context of educational opportunities available to them.

Larger campuses, wider divides

Still, the effects of the shifting student demographics have been significant at the UC system’s larger campuses, namely UC Berkeley and UCLA, which do not participate in the ELC program. An August 2012 case study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that between 1997 and 1998, the enrollment of freshman African American students declined by 52 percent, and the enrollment of Chicano and Latino students fell by 43 percent.

Marcel Jones, a UC Berkeley junior and co-chair of the Black Student Union, said he is often one of a handful of African American students — who make up just over 3 percent of the campus’s undergraduate student body — in his political economy lectures.

“When you are a minority, you have the burden of representation everywhere you go, and it is very easy to be typecasted and thrown into a corner when trying to represent your people,” Jones said.

Because the university’s student body does not reflect the racial makeup of the state, students’ opportunities to learn from diverse perspectives is limited, UC officials say in the brief.

“At a place like Berkeley, if everyone has the same experience, by definition you’re only going to get one answer,” said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, an associate professor at the campus’s Graduate School of Education and a 1992 campus alumna.

A “band-aid” to a larger issue

In an effort to achieve diversity to further “broad educational and societal benefits,” the UC system has targeted admissions-related outreach to low-income communities — which send about twice as many underrepresented student to the university than nonlow-income communities — through counseling, mentorship and tutoring programs at under-resourced high schools and community colleges throughout the state.

Additionally, UC San Diego partnered with a local public school district in 1998 to establish a charter school for students in grades six to 12 specifically from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. In the 2009-10 school year, about 76 percent of the school’s students were from underrepresented minorities.

However, many say that though affirmative action would help the university fulfill its own academic mission to reflect the diversity of California, race-conscious admissions policies still do not solve the inequalities that stem from the state’s K-12 school system.

Anne MacLachlan, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, said that because schools rely on local property taxes for much of their funding, low-income underrepresented minority students are often forced to attend the under-resourced public schools in their communities.

“Until we can address that, anything (California is) doing in higher education is just a band-aid,” Bedolla said.

Contact Alyssa Neumann at [email protected].