UC-Berkeley can’t use race in admissions. Is it a model for the country?

Lessons from the UC system are informing arguments at the Supreme Court as justices consider race-conscious admissions. California voters banned schools from considering the race of applicants in 1996. Above, Sproul Plaza at UC-Berkeley. (Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post)

BERKELEY, Calif. — The University of California at Berkeley has labored to enroll more Black and Latino students in the quarter century since the state barred the consideration of race or ethnicity in its admissions.

Still, those groups remain underrepresented at the renowned public university here on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. The gap is huge for Latino students. They account for 55 percent of California’s public school students, state data show, but 19 percent of UC-Berkeley undergraduates.

UC-Berkeley is undeniably diverse. Just 20 percent of its undergraduates are White. But is it diverse enough?

The university’s demographics, and its arduous efforts to shape them, illuminate the stakes as the Supreme Court weighs a potential ban nationwide on affirmative action in admissions. Voters in California banned schools from considering the race of applicants in 1996, so UC-Berkeley represents a massive, ongoing experiment in race-neutral admissions at a highly competitive university.

Some celebrate UC-Berkeley as an exemplar of racial diversity. Others say it shows the enormous, perhaps insurmountable, challenges ahead for selective colleges and universities seeking to reflect the populations of their home states and the nation.

Jennifer Silva, 18, a first-year student of Mexican descent, who is exploring biology, said she was drawn here after visiting the University of Notre Dame. On that campus in Indiana she saw few students who looked like her. Silva said she felt there “like a brown spot on a white tablecloth.” UC-Berkeley felt more like her nearby hometown of Hayward, Calif. But Silva also wishes the Latino community had a stronger presence at UC-Berkeley.

“I am here,” she said, “but I wonder if I am seen.”

Diversity-promoting initiatives abound at UC-Berkeley, UCLA and their sister campuses around the state. They give no preference to the children of donors or alumni — in contrast to fundraising and “legacy” policies elsewhere that often boost those who are White and wealthy. The UC system recently decided to ignore SAT and ACT admission test scores, eliminating another perceived barrier for disadvantaged students. It offers significant financial aid to students in need and a special geographic-focused program to facilitate admission for the top 9 percent of students at California high schools. And it admits tens of thousands of transfers every year from community colleges — many from low-income families.

UC-Berkeley even added recruiters in Southern California to hunt for talent from an array of racial backgrounds. The admissions team here revamped how it reads applications in an effort to pay more attention to individual circumstances, including personal or financial hardships. It also launched a web page for Spanish-speaking communities called Berkeley en Español and opened a campus resource center for Latinx students to help them feel more at home.

Yet results fall far short of ambitions. The Latino share of undergraduates here, 15 percent in 2018, has grown about a point a year. The share systemwide is about 25 percent, and it exceeds 50 percent at UC-Merced.

Olufemi Ogundele, UC-Berkeley’s dean of admissions, said he wishes the university could do more to represent the breadth of the nation’s most populous state. “There is no replacement for being able to consider race,” he said. “It just does not exist. And we’re trying to do some dynamic things here. I’m digging into context and all of these details. But there’s no alternative there.”

UC policy calls for each campus to encompass “the broad diversity of cultural, racial, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds characteristic of California.” Here at UC-Berkeley, the admissions team does not entirely ignore racial identity if applicants bring it up in an essay. Whatever they choose to write about, Ogundele said, “we should hear them out for who they are.” But the law known as Proposition 209 bars admissions officers from putting a thumb on the scale for race or ethnicity.

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Lessons from UC are looming at the Supreme Court as justices consider a challenge to race-conscious admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. California is one of nine states that ban race-based affirmative action in public university admissions. Among the others are Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Washington.

“It’s incumbent on every college and university around the nation to study from and learn from those examples,” Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar told the court on Oct. 31 during oral arguments in which she represented the Biden administration. She acknowledged that many colleges and universities in the nine states with bans have been able to maintain diverse student bodies. But Prelogar urged the court to preserve precedents allowing limited use of race in admissions, citing “dramatic declines” in racial diversity that occurred at UC-Berkeley and UCLA after passage of Proposition 209.

As Supreme Court test looms, UNC defends use of race in admissions

UC leaders said in an amicus brief filed in support of UNC and Harvard that the Black share of the freshman class at UC-Berkeley fell by half, to 3 percent, when the state ban took effect in 1998. The Latino share suffered a similar plunge, to 7 percent. Subsequent growth on those measures has failed to keep pace with population trends, the UC leaders said. The Black share of undergraduates here in Berkeley is now slightly less than 4 percent, while the Black share of public school students statewide is about 5 percent.

“UC’s experience demonstrates that the race-neutral measures which it has diligently pursued for 25 years have been inadequate to meaningfully increase student-body diversity, and that the problem is most acute at its most selective campuses,” the brief said.

Nevertheless, the court’s conservative majority seemed skeptical about affirmative action in admissions, and analysts predict whatever ruling emerges next year will end it. Several justices were attentive to the sunnier view from the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions. One of the group’s attorneys noted in the court hearing that UC-Berkeley is highly ranked and boasts about its diversity. Another, Patrick Strawbridge, rattled off statistics showing that Hispanic enrollment is about as large as non-Hispanic White enrollment, and that there are sizable shares of students of Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean descent at the university.

“And we are told that the students there are somehow being deprived of the educational benefits of diversity, or being deprived of diverse environment,” Strawbridge told the justices. “I don’t think that’s correct.”

On the campus here that rises on a slope facing west to the Golden Gate, diversity seems honored and evident in multiple ways. Core buildings are named for civil rights leaders — the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center, the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. Signs also point out Woo Hon Fai Hall, named for the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the International House and another location dubbed a “Safe Space for Undocumented Students.”

Students of color, from the United States or overseas, predominate in the crowds that flow through Sather Gate and Sproul Plaza on foot, bicycle, skateboard or electric scooter. With 45,000 students, UC-Berkeley is far less White in enrollment than many other prestigious universities.

That attracted Kenyon Jolley, 18, a first-year student from Las Vegas, who is White. “I’m interested in politics,” Jolley said. “And politics is increasingly about race blocs and different ethnic groups today in the country. And so I think UC-Berkeley, because of its diversity, kind of provides that extra level of analysis when it comes to studying political topics.”

Jolley was skeptical, though, about the use of race in admissions.

“Race-blind admissions is the right step forward for diversity in academia,” Jolley said. He said he is more sympathetic to helping applicants who come from impoverished neighborhoods or would be the first in their families to go to college.

Jason Lee, 18, a sophomore from San Jose of Chinese descent, is among the 40 percent of undergraduates here who identify as Asian American. Lee, who is studying computer science, said he applied to many UC campuses and colleges elsewhere. He believes race plays a strong role in admissions to many top schools outside of California, and he worries about that.

“If you want to put it bluntly,” Lee said, “as an Asian male, it’s pretty hard to stand out from other Asian males.” But he stopped short of asserting that race should be banned entirely from admissions. “I can’t say a hard no.”

Two years ago, UC-Berkeley was a hub of political activism in a drive to repeal Proposition 209. State voters resoundingly rejected the repeal. But Chaka Tellem, who rallied classmates to back the repeal, said he does not regret the effort.

Tellem, 21, a senior from Los Angeles whose mother is from Gambia, is majoring in political economy. He is also the student body president. “The argument that affirmative action gives people an unfair advantage, or affirmative action takes seats away from hard-working and well-deserved students, I think is a misconception and harmful,” Tellem said.

He does not want the university’s record to be held up as a “a pretext” for the Supreme Court to end consideration of race in admissions nationwide. While UC-Berkeley has made some progress in recruiting underrepresented students, Tellem said, it has far to go. “This is not a time where we can be complacent.”

Ogundele, the admissions dean, is pushing on as many fronts as possible. He wants more disadvantaged applicants of all races. A little more than a quarter of undergraduates have enough financial need to qualify for Pell Grants. He hopes to raise American Indian enrollment, now about 0.4 percent, as well as Black and Latino enrollment.

It is crucial, he said, to reach out to communities that don’t know much about UC-Berkeley and woo students aggressively once they are offered admission, through events such as campus visit days with targeted cultural themes. “We can no longer sit on our laurels and say, ‘You got into Berkeley, congratulations,’” Ogundele said. “I think we need to really go out there and say, ‘You got into Berkeley. We would be lucky to have you.’”

The Supreme Court has long banned college admission systems that set aside seats to fill racial quotas. But that does not mean universities cannot pursue diversity goals.

Carol T. Christ, the university chancellor, who is White, has pushed several years for UC-Berkeley to secure a federal designation as a Hispanic-serving institution. That would help the university qualify for certain federal funding, but it would also mark a demographic milestone.

To accomplish that, one key benchmark would be for 25 percent of its students to identify as Latino or Hispanic. “We think we’re going to make it,” Christ said. “If you’re a public university, I believe you should represent the population of the state.” Several other UC campuses already have the Hispanic-serving designation.

Some faculty lament the incremental pace of Latino enrollment growth. “Change is never fast enough for those who want it,” said G. Cristina Mora, an associate professor of sociology, who earned her bachelor’s degree here in 2003. Mora is Latina. “The scale of our underrepresentation is huge.” Mora said the university also must diversify its faculty. About 6 percent of its full-time faculty is Latino, federal data show. Mora said students often tell her she’s the first Latino professor they’ve had.

Others fear the university is too preoccupied with racial and ethnic head counts. “The value of achieving diversity, to some people at this university, and certainly other universities, is more important, I think, than, say, winning Nobel Prizes or graduating classes with fine, highly educated students who are prepared for leading the state,” said John Yoo, a UC-Berkeley law professor.

Yoo, of Korean descent, is a trustee of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that supports the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuits. He is also a former clerk of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Yoo said the university is a demographic success story even if the shares of enrollment of some racial groups do not match their shares of California residents or schoolchildren. “It’s not clear to me why it should be a mirror of the population of the state,” he said.

Paradoxically, Yoo said, the enactment of Proposition 209 kept the goal of racial diversity on the university’s front burner. “In a way it became culturally more deeply rooted now at the university than it was back in 1996,” he said.

For many students, racial identity is an inescapable fact. They appreciate the diversity of the campus, as far as it goes, but they also want to feel more of a sense of belonging. Giancarlo Fernandez, 23, of Torrance, Calif., is a senior majoring in political science and the son of Mexican and Peruvian immigrants. He transferred here from a community college and is a leader in student government. He loves the university but often feels isolated in class, one of the few Latino students in a room. Sometimes, he said, that means he will raise his hand less in a discussion than he otherwise might if he didn’t feel quite so outnumbered.

Fernandez doesn’t think it should be that way.

“It’s a number one public university, a leading university in the nation,” Fernandez said. “They should be a leader in everything.” In comparison to other universities, he said, UC-Berkeley “does a really great job. But it’s not done yet.”

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