After California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996 banning affirmative action at public universities and colleges in the state, black and Latino enrollment at U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, and other top public institutions plummeted. What happened since then?
Harvard Education Press has just published a fascinating new volume, chocked full of data, on the longer term effects of Prop. 209. The book, Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, derives from a conference organized by one of the nation’s leading advocates of affirmative action, Christopher Edley, Jr., the Dean of U.C. Berkeley Law School, and funded by the Ford Foundation. To their credit, Edley and Ford assembled a body of research that is both generally supportive of affirmative action but also includes key findings that suggest that there are, in the words of U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, “new and innovative ways to promote diversity.” The volume is edited by Eric Grodsky of the University of Minnesota and Michal Kurlaender of U.C. Davis.
Among the key findings:
* The elite institutions—U.C. Berkeley and UCLA—have still not fully recovered the diversity levels found prior to Prop. 209, but they’ve made a great deal of progress. The share of African American and Latino new freshman declined from 23 percent in 1997 to 14 percent in 1998 (the first year of race-blind admissions), but has since rebounded to 20 percent. These proportions are substantially below the general high school populations for blacks and Latinos but may be considered a “critical mass” by the U.S. Supreme Court.
* Part of the reason for the decline in representation at selective U.C. campuses is that black and Hispanic students who were admitted to Berkeley and UCLA are going to more prestigious private institutions that continue to practice affirmative action. U.C. admissions director Susan Wilbur’s analysis finds that “African American and Latino students admitted to the UC system were more likely than white or Asian admits to reject their UC offers and attend a selective private college.” Among top-tier students who declined UC offers of admission, 48 percent of African Americans attended Princeton, Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, compared with 10 percent of whites who declined UC admission. “In a post-209 world,” she writes, underrepresented minority students “are taking advantage of alternative offers of admission and appear to be faring reasonably well, at least in terms of the types of colleges and universities they attend.”
* The overall UC system—which includes nine campuses—has seen an increase in racial and ethnic diversity in the years since Prop. 209. The proportion of blacks and Latinos who made up new freshman initially declined from 18 percent in 1997 to 15 percent in 1998, but by 2008, it reached 24 percent.
* As universities sought to find race-neutral ways to increase racial diversity, including considerations of socioeconomic obstacles that students overcame, socioeconomic diversity increased substantially, both among underrepresented minorities and the overall UC population. Black and Latino students benefited disproportionately from considerations of socioeconomic status in admissions, as they accounted for 25 percent of UC students admitted, but 38 percent of low-income admits. At the elite UC campuses, according to Tongshan Chang of the UC Office of Institutional Research and Heather Rose of U.C. Davis, “the percentage of admitted and enrolled URMs [underrepresented minorities] who were the first in their families to attend college rose dramatically from 1998 onward, while their share of those students in the applicant pool remained relatively flat.” Likewise, they find, “The admission rates of non-URM first-generation college students also rose after 1998.” Among leading universities nationally, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA consistently rank at the very top in the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants, an indicator of low-income status.
* UC graduation rates for underrepresented minorities have also increased since the passage of Prop. 209, although this trend began before the adoption of the proposition, so there is some debate over whether or not increased graduation rates are due to 209′s raising of academic standards for admissions. At the very least, it seems apparent that increasing economic diversity can coincide with increasing graduation rates.
The contributors to Equal Opportunity in Higher Education properly bemoan the gap between the growing representation of black and Latino students in the high school population and their representation in the UC system, particularly the elites. But there is also a fair amount of good news in this story: that higher education will fight hard to find non-racial ways to produce racial diversity, and as a byproduct, will end up helping a lot of low-income minority and white students who might otherwise have missed out.