California’s 24-year ban on affirmative action has had a staggering impact on underrepresented students seeking admission to the state’s public universities.
On Tuesday, voters will once again consider whether race and gender can be determining factors in college admissions, public-agency hiring and contracting and whether to reverse course in a state where the demographics of its electorate have dramatically changed over the past two decades.
Even if Proposition 16, which would strike the ban from the state constitution, is approved, a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases will shape just what the state’s public universities can do to boost the number of underrepresented students.
Since voters in 1996 stopped the California State University system from recruiting students based on race and offering recruited students scholarships to relieve financial burdens, the share of Black and Native American students has fallen.
But the widest enrollment gap exists among Latinos at the University of California, where there is a double-digit difference between the percentage of high school graduates and those enrolled in the 2019 freshman class: 52% vs 29%. And even for those students who completed the required course sequence for admission, known as A-G, the gap was 13 percentage points.
At the same time, Asians are overrepresented at the University of California — nearly triple their share of high school graduates. And white students on campus remain slightly below their share of graduates.
One of the issues at play is a dramatically different California. Since 1997, the last year before the affirmative action ban took effect, the number of California high school graduates statewide grew 63%.
Most of that stems from the growth in the increase in Latino high school graduates — from about 82,000 in 1997 to more than 229,000 in 2019. The numbers of Blacks and Asians also increased but their share of the total dropped.
Banned from using race to decide on admissions, the University of California tried proxies, a list of 14 factors, such as census data, to identify poor neighborhoods and family income to identify underrepresented students, but, experts said, without enough success.
The effects of Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action, also extends to the racial and ethnic makeup of state university faculty who do not come close to reflecting California’s ethnic diversity.
White instructors dominate the professorial ranks, with the widest gap at the University of California, where they made up nearly 70% of all academics in 2016-17, a year when only 27% of UC students were white.
“UC acknowledges the acute need to remove barriers in the recruitment and retention of talented faculty and staff from diverse and underrepresented groups,” UC spokesperson Claire Doan wrote in an email. “The proportion of women and underrepresented groups in the faculty continues to grow at a modest pace.”
“This is a system gone wrong,” said state Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who is the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper. She led efforts to get Prop. 16 on the Nov. 3 ballot. “Diversity and opportunity get right to the soul of what a university should be.”
Prop. 209, she said, was “blatantly racist.”
California State University Trustee Jack McGory, who was San Diego’s city manager in 1996, called the ban “mean spirited.”
Prop. 16 would remove the ban on affirmative action and allow the systems to decide what steps to take to bring greater equity in admissions, faculty hiring and contracts. The campuses vary in diversity and are autonomous, within the law, to carry out different approaches to recruitment and admissions.
But, opponents argue, admission decisions should be based on merit. Some Asian Americans, for example, fear that increasing admissions to other groups will only result in decreases for them.
Getting voter approval for Prop. 16 looks bleak, however. Two September polls put voter support at only 31% and 33%. It’s been endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and other leading Democrats.
While the university systems can’t take a position on a political issue, leaders have voiced their support. In 1996, the ban was approved by voters 55.5% to 45.5%.
Ban created “opportunity gap”
Retiring CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said the ban created “a fundamental opportunity gap” for students of color. “They’ve had less opportunity for reasons that are often beyond their control” like financial issues, the quality of their schools and being the first member of their family to go to college, White said.
On faculty, White said Prop.16 would give the system more tools to attract diverse faculty and keep them as successful faculty members.
But the man who led the fight against affirmative action in 1996 has resurfaced in California to challenge Prop. 16. Known as the father of Prop. 209, former UC Regent Ward Connerly, remains staunchly opposed to targeting programs to help students or faculty based on their race or ethnicity.
If students are struggling, he said in an interview, they need to work harder. His answer to the widening gaps between the pool of Black, Native American and Latino students and those enrolled in the state’s four-year universities is that more time is needed for Americans to accept that only “color blindness” will allow progress.
“There are opportunities there for them,” said Connerly, 81, who is Black and now retired. He was a Sacramento developer when the ban passed. “Over time, in the fullness of time, those numbers will go up.”
An EdSource analysis of CSU and UC student enrollment data from 1996 through 2018 reveals that voter rejection of affirmative action hurt the enrollment of Black, Latino and Native American students in California’s public universities:
- Black student enrollment in CSU and UC remains lower than their share of high school graduates in California. The gap is greater at CSU where they were 8% of the freshman class in 1997 but have fallen almost in half to 4%. At the same time, the number of Black high school graduates has increased from about 21,000 in 1997 to 25,000 in 2018.
- The number of Native Americans entering CSU campuses was tiny in 1996 and yet still fell drastically to 0.2% of the 2018 incoming freshman class, a mere 114 students. They reached their peak in 1995 at 1.23% of the freshman class. More Native Americans are enrolled at UC, where in 2018 they made up 0.5% of freshmen enrollment, close to their share of high school graduates.
- Latino enrollments in 2018 at CSU closely resemble their share of the high school graduating class. But at UC, they are vastly underrepresented.
Since 1997, white students gained at CSU but their enrollment remains four percentage points below their share of high school graduates. At UC, the gap is six percentage points between white students who took the required high school courses for admission and those enrolled.
Asian students make up an increasingly larger share of the enrollment at UC. They outpaced their share of high school graduates by 27 percentage points at UC with most — 24% — completing required courses. At CSU, Asians in 2018 were close to their share of high school graduates: 17% enrolled compared to 14% high school graduates.
Room for qualified students in 1996
Prior to Prop. 209’s passage, the CSU system didn’t need to consider race in admissions because there were enough open slots to place all qualified applicants, spokesman, Michael Uhlenkamp said. But prior to the affirmative action ban, the CSU system used so-called “equal opportunity
programs” to recruit students who were minorities or underrepresented at the university.
Some were awarded targeted scholarships and enlisted in programs that helped with tutoring and mentors. There were also programs to help students qualify for admission by completing the required A-G sequence of high school courses.
Incoming CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro credited a UC Berkeley Equal Opportunity Program for bringing him to that campus as an undergraduate.
“It changed my whole life,” he told EdSource on the day he was selected chancellor this fall. But all the programs that targeted support and gave academic help to students vanished.
Prop. 209 created subtle but troubling consequences for minorities and Latinos, said Steve Kellner, the former superintendent of the West Sonoma Union High School District, who is now the director of program delivery at California Education Partners, a nonprofit that works with school districts to improve student outcomes.
“Kids excluded themselves already because they knew there wasn’t a place for them,” he said.
Many underrepresented students accepted to the public universities are poor and the first in their family to go to college. They often need help adjusting to university life, he said, adding that programs designed for the summer between high school and college can be critical to their success.
“There are all kinds of examples in the research that show that once you give students a chance, they tend to rise to the occasion,” Kellner said. But others, especially those who would be the first in their family to go college, don’t because without mentors from their own ethnic or racial group and programs to help them acclimate to college, they feel intimidated.
Jessica Ramos, a college-bound student at Skyline High School in Oakland says worthy students often need a boost. “Prop. 16 would help a lot of students.”
“They have amazing stories,” said Ramos, a member of the Oakland Unified School District’s City Council Student Union. “They don’t get in because of race and different things on their applications,” she said. “There are things the schools don’’t see.”
Helping underrepresented students with scholarships
At CSU, White said that affirmative action would allow the system to create scholarships specifically for underrepresented students. Those scholarships “would be supportive of a certain race or ethnicity that would then allow that student to not have to work on the outside and could put all of their energy in their courses and be engaged with faculty and support staff,” White said.
“To me, that’s a way in which we would increase the speed to earn a degree and go on to grad school or work,” he said.
It’s a strategy that also supports CSU’s Graduation 2025 initiative to improve graduation rates for all students.
But that’s the type of program that Connerly and other Prop. 209 proponents specifically object to because it would single out students for aid based on their race or ethnicity.
A study based on internal data by a UC Berkeley researcher published in August by the UC Office of the President found that, “affirmative action provided very large admissions advantages to mostly lower-income Black and Hispanic applicants at every UC campus, especially the more selective campuses,” the researcher, Zachary Bleemer, wrote in the report’s summary.
The programs leading to a UC degree enabled those students to boost their earning potential after graduation. “As a result, Prop. 209 caused a substantial decline in the number of high-earning early-career (Black and Latino) Californians that persists more than 20 years later,” he wrote.
Grace Pang, a senior at San Jose State, who is Chinese and Vietnamese, says affirmative action programs aimed at women and Asian students could have helped her with her living expenses as the first member of a low-income family to go to college. “It can really impact students like me. It could negate the extra barriers that people have to go through,” she said.
Latinos: Most improvement at CSU
Latinos have shown the most improvement in CSU enrollment where they are nearly on par with their percentage of high school graduates: 51% to 50%. Among those who took the required admissions courses, 43% were enrolled in 2018. For some students, CSU may have the advantage of lower costs and more locations around the state, 23 to nine undergraduate campuses for UC.
The widest gap is at UC, where there is a 23 percentage point gap between the enrolled Latino freshmen and high school graduates: 52% vs. 29%. The gap between enrolled freshmen and those meeting admission requirements is about half of that.
Even Connerly called the gap “troubling.”
That number, experts said, shows the reality that Black, Native American and Latino students who are historically underrepresented face. Latino students still need additional targeted help to overcome inequities that exist in high schools that pose a barrier to admission into top universities and to stay there once they get there, said Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles.
Underrepresented students may go to schools where the types of advanced classes that can lead to higher grade point averages aren’t offered, Saenz said. “If you’re going to (high school) in Beverly Hills, your upper limit on your GPA is much higher than if you’re going to Compton,” he said.
Because of U.S Supreme Court decisions since 1996 that have shaped affirmative action nationally, if Prop. 16 passes, California would be starting to shape policies from a very different place than where the state was when the ban took effect 24 years ago, Saenz said.
Federal law now requires policymakers to undertake “careful consideration” and reviews to decide if there are other ways to reach desired goals before going to programs based on racial criteria, Saenz said.
Just having those probative discussions and “searching inquiries” in California will benefit underrepresented students, including Latinos, Saenz said.
“We don’t focus on these issues because policymakers understandably conclude that (Prop.) 209 prohibits race-based decisions,” he said. “If we removed the Prop. 209 barriers, I believe it will create broad discussions and careful consideration along the lines of what the Supreme Court requires, and we will benefit from that.”
In August, just after taking up his post UC President Michael Drake praised the use of affirmative action as a factor in admissions during his tenure as president of Ohio State University and said the practice could be used as a tool for admission to UC if Prop 16 were to pass. He declined an interview request.
“UC recognizes the challenges of keeping pace with the diversity of the state and has been working diligently to close those gaps,” said spokesperson Doan.
This fall, UC touted its freshman class Latino enrollment as the highest in its history. Yet, officials say, the system needs to do better. In a pre-retirement interview in June, former UC President Janet Napolitano said affirmative action could help the system get to the ideal of a student body that reflects the state’s diversity.
“We have a list of 14 factors in admissions and it does seem artificial when the only factor you can’t consider is race, ethnicity, or gender as if those have nothing to do with a student,” she said.
A handout or a boost?
One of the biggest challenges that proponents of Prop. 16 say they face is the perception that affirmative action simply gives students a hand out or a faculty job to an otherwise unqualified academic.
CSU San Marcos, located in Southern California, within an hour’s drive of 35 reservations and rancherias, has the highest population of Native Americans in the vicinity of any CSU campus.
Joely Proudfit, chair of CSU San Marcos’ Native American Studies Department said the return of affirmative action would allow for the recruiting of Native American students and faculty, something that cannot be done now.
While she was recently able to hire a Native American historian, she was limited to recruiting without identifying that she wanted to hire a Native American. “There is no reason that in 2020, you should be hiring a historian who studies Indians who’s not Indian,” said Proudfit. “You should be hiring a Native American historian who does Native American history.”
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