Admissions & Student Aid

As Berkeley Enrolls More Out-of-State Students, Racial Diversity May Suffer

November 04, 2009

Ever since California voters banned affirmative action by state agencies in 1996, the University of California at Berkeley has struggled to enroll more than a small group of black and Latino students. Four years ago, Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau called the university's low numbers "shocking" and said the situation was "a crisis."

But after making limited progress since then, Berkeley officials are now struggling to avoid another drop in the enrollment of underrepresented minority students, this time because of pressures from state budget cuts.

To save money, Berkeley plans to reduce the size of next fall's freshman class. The university intends to enroll about 15 percent fewer Californians, while at the same time nearly doubling its number of out-of-state and international students, who will generate millions of dollars in new revenue from higher, nonresident tuition.

The intended growth in nonresident students at Berkeley, from about 12 percent to 23 percent of the student body, comes as public universities everywhere are turning to out-of-state tuition to replace declining state support. But the enrollment changes have sparked deep concern on the campus that black, Latino, and low-income students will be turned away disproportionately.

According to rough estimates prepared by a university panel on nonresident enrollment, the number of Latino freshmen who enroll next year could decline by 18 percent, the number of black freshmen by 13 percent, and the number of first-generation freshmen by 15 percent. Those estimates, which are based on the composition of the 2009-10 freshman applicant pool, compare with a 5-percent cut in the size of the fall freshman class as a whole.

"Decreasing California resident students will, at least in the short term, likely result in a less-diverse student body—an outcome that the task force finds appalling," says the panel's report, which endorsed the enrollment changes on financial grounds.

'Minimize the Damage'

Underrepresented minority and low-income students are at risk when the enrollment of California students is reduced because those groups tend to be concentrated near the cutoff point for admission, said Walter A. Robinson, Berkeley's admissions director. Out-of-state students, who must pay higher nonresident tuition, are typically a less-diverse group.

A setback for Berkeley's racial-diversity numbers, which are a prominent symbol of the level of access to higher education in California, could create political problems for the university and embolden its critics. Black and Latino residents make up more than 40 percent of California's population but represent only about 15 percent of Berkeley's freshman class.

The prospect of a drop in diversity has campus officials working to broaden their outreach to California students and to recruit a more racially diverse pool of out-of-state applicants than in the past.

How Berkeley's Student Body Might Change

A University of California at Berkeley panel estimates that a plan to enroll more students from out of state and abroad, a revenue-raising step in response to budget cuts, would result in fewer minority and first-generation students, among others, entering as new freshmen next fall.


2009-10 (preliminary)

2010-11 (estimate)

Percent change

* Figures are campus targets.

Source: University of California at Berkeley

African-American students




Chicano/Latino students




First-generation students




Students who are California residents




Total fall-term freshmen




"I'm hoping that we can put the procedures in place that will allow us to minimize the damage," said George C. Johnson, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the panel's report on nonresident enrollment. "Ideally, that would mean that our ethnic diversity looks the same this year as it does next year. It's not clear that that's doable."

California college officials face strict legal limits on their ability to recruit and admit minority students because of Proposition 209, the state referendum that explicitly banned race-based preferences in public-college admissions in 1996. In many cases, admissions officials say they do not know the race of the applicants they are considering for admission.

Mr. Birgeneau, the chancellor, said it was too early to predict the outcome of the admissions process for next fall's freshman class. He said that while the student body would probably get wealthier, aggressive outreach programs might help the university compensate for potential declines in racial diversity.

"It could lead to a decrease in the number of underrepresented minorities," Mr. Birgeneau said. "On the other hand, the increased revenue from international and out-of-state students will give us more money for in-state outreach programs."

He cited a state-court decision this year that may give the university additional legal options to recruit minority students under Proposition 209. The case, American Civil Rights Foundation v. Berkeley Unified School District, will allow the university to better seek out potential students at minority-heavy high schools with less risk of a legal challenge, he said.

"If the numbers do drop, which is possible," he said, "then we will figure out strategies to compensate."

Deflating the California Fantasy

The potential for a decline in Berkeley's racial and economic diversity has drawn criticism from some faculty members and others who believe the university should retain its focus on California residents in spite of the budget cuts. Other University of California campuses are cutting their enrollment of in-state students, but none has moved as aggressively as Berkeley has to boost nonresident enrollment.

Christopher Newfield, an English professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said in an e-mail that the political cost of enrolling many nonresident students would outweigh the financial benefits. Berkeley officials believe new revenue from nonresident tuition will fill about 15 percent of the campus's budget gap next year.

Mr. Newfield said it would be better to get the money by imposing a temporary surcharge on all students—a proposal unlikely to sit well with students who will already be paying for a 32-percent increase in tuition. Relying on nonresident tuition, he said, is "more of the California fantasy that somebody else will pay to fix this."

The blow to diversity would be equally bad, he said. "Another wave of declines in black, Latino, and first-generation enrollments would be a disaster for Berkeley and for UC," Mr. Newfield said.

Other higher-education analysts pointed to the effect the increase in nonresident students would have on the economic diversity of Berkeley's undergraduates. Berkeley and other University of California campuses enroll a far higher proportion of low-income students than do most other prominent public and private institutions.

In the 2008-9 academic year, more than a third of Berkeley undergraduates from California were eligible for Pell Grants, a rough measure of the number of low-income students. Only 8 percent of out-of-state undergraduates were eligible for Pell Grants, according to the university.

Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington-based research group, said it would be difficult for Berkeley to increase the diversity of its out-of-state applicant pool. "With such a large increase in the number of out-of-state students, the trade-off is going to be the low-income population that they've served so very well in the past."