A look back at diversity in UC Berkeley admissions

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Shaun Lien/Staff

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Next week, more than 108,000 applicants will open their emails to find out whether they were accepted, rejected or wait-listed by UC Berkeleya drastic increase from the 271 applications the college received in 1892.

That year, just 20 applicants were rejected from the college, according to data published in The Berkeleyanamounting to an estimated 90 percent acceptance rate. But the actual makeup of the student body in UC Berkeley’s early years is unknown.

For the next half-century, admits to UC Berkeley would remain racially homogeneous, with roughly nine out of 10 students hailing from white, middle- to upper-class families, according to the Karabel Report compiled by the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate in 1989.

In fact, admission to the UC was controlled entirely by high schools for much of the early 20th century, according to Zachary Bleemer, director of the UC Cliometric History Project.

“We did not have an admissions team at all; we accredited high schools to do admissions for us,” Bleemer said in email.

Accredited high schools identified top-performing “UC-eligible” students, who were then granted admission to the campus. During this time, minority enrollment on campus remained low, according to Bleemer.

It was not until the 1960s that the campus began documenting the ethnic makeup of its student body and created the Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP. Yet the campus struggled to attract talented minority students from California against other elite universities, and Black enrollment at UC Berkeley slipped by 23 percent between 1975 and 1979.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another blow to the UC’s systemwide diversity efforts with a ruling that abolished racial quotas in college admissions in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

Despite the legal setback, however, UC Berkeley began to pursue a more focused effort to implement affirmative action policies throughout the 1980s. In the seven years between 1981 and 1988, the proportion of historically underrepresented minorities more than doubled from 15.3 percent to 36.6 percent, the Karabel Report said. In the same period, white enrollment dropped from 57.9 percent to 37 percent.

But the uptick in minority representation was relatively short-lived. California Proposition 209, which was passed in 1996 and went into effect at UC Berkeley in 1998, mandated that race could no longer play a role in admissions.

Prop. 209 hit the hardest at the UC’s most selective campuses, including Berkeley, where the acceptance rate for minority applicants plummeted from 54.6 percent to 20.2 percent between 1995 and 1998.

UC Berkeley’s campus notwithstanding, minority enrollment within the UC system as a whole has been on the rise over the past two decades, according to UCOP spokesperson Stephanie Beechem.

“The proportion of new freshmen from underrepresented groups … has increased from 17 percent in 1997 to 31 percent in 2017,” Beechem said.

But this shift has not been uniform across the UC system, according to Bleemer.

“Since the 1990s, of course, the proportion of black students has (fallen) precipitously at Berkeley (and has not recovered),” Bleemer said in an email.

Contact Miyako Iwata at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dailycalmiyako.