UC’s experience with an affirmative action ban

Latino students crossed a higher education milestone this year in the nation’s most populous state. For the first time, the University of California admitted more Latino applicants to its incoming freshman class than those who are non-Hispanic white.

Yet UC officials say the state’s ban on affirmative action in admissions decision, in place for nearly two decades, has hindered their efforts to maintain diverse campuses. Numerous experiments with alternatives to race-conscious admissions, UC said in a court brief filed last year, “have had disappointing results.”

The UC system’s experience has been closely watched since voters approved the affirmative action ban in 1996. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding a similar ban in Michigan has put renewed attention on UC as colleges nationwide consider alternatives to racial preferences in admissions.

UC, with nine undergraduate campuses from Davis to San Diego, boasts stunning diversity. Four out of every 10 of its undergraduates come from families poor enough to qualify for federal Pell grants. More than 40 percent of incoming freshmen last year among California residents were first-generation college students.

This year, the university offered admission to more than 22,000 students who are Asian American, more than 17,000 who are Hispanic/Latino, more than 16,000 who are non-Hispanic white and more than 2,500 who are African American.

Behind these figures, UC officials say, is a problem: The share of black and Latino students at the university as a whole, and especially at its most prestigious campuses, does not reflect the racial and ethnic profile of the state.

“It’s not as if those numbers represent a success story,” Nina Robinson, associate president and chief policy adviser for the UC system, said Wednesday.

In 1995, according to a UC fact sheet, 4.3 percent of roughly 22,000 new UC freshmen from California were African American. Last year, the share was 4 percent of roughly 33,000. On that measure, the Latino/Hispanic share rose from 15.6 percent in 1995 to 28.1 percent last year.

However, Robinson said, the share of Latino students statewide who are graduating from high school has risen at a faster clip. Latinos now account for nearly half of the state’s annual output of high school graduates and will soon be a majority.

In addition, the black share of new students at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, the most prestigious in the system, plummeted after the affirmative action ban and has not recovered.

Robinson said UC has tried just about everything to narrow the gap. Among its initiatives: “dozens of programs” for outreach to disadvantaged students in the K-12 school system; an admission guarantee for students in the top nine percent of their high school class; revising admission criteria to boost the chances of applicants who have overcome obstacles in life; and deemphasizing standardized test scores.

“Our policies help,” Robinson said. “It’s not that they’re useless.”

Asked whether there are significant ideas left to try, Robinson said: “We can’t think of anything, no. We are always looking.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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