Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource
UC Berkeley students on campus in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union.

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The U.S. Supreme Court is set to soon decide whether race-based programs in admissions are lawful. California, where voters banned affirmative action in 1996, has already been down that road, and University of California officials have asked the court to allow race-conscious admissions policies elsewhere.

The proof of their need, officials and college access advocates say, is in UC’s series of failed efforts to increase diversity without affirmative action. The system’s latest attempt to make admissions more equitable was its high-profile decision to eliminate standardized test scores, but that too has so far had little impact in improving racial diversity.

The conservative-leaning Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Oct. 31 in two cases, against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and could overturn a long-standing precedent allowing the consideration of race in college admissions.

California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in college admissions.

UC has since implemented a number of policies designed to increase diversity, from outreach efforts targeted at low-income students to admission guarantees to more students. But while those policies improved geographic diversity and increased enrollment among low-income students, they have failed to bring racial diversity to UC’s student body that’s representative of the state, UC acknowledged in an amicus brief it filed to the Supreme Court this summer.

UC told the Supreme Court that “despite its extensive efforts, UC struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity. The shortfall is especially apparent at UC’s most selective campuses, where African American, Native American, and Latinx students are underrepresented and widely report struggling with feelings of racial isolation.”

The state’s high school seniors in 2021 were 54% Latino and 5.4% Black. But that fall, UC’s incoming freshmen were 26% Latino, and 4.4% Black.

UC concluded to the court that its decadeslong experience with race-neutral admissions “demonstrates that highly competitive universities may not be able to achieve the benefits of student body diversity through race-neutral measures alone.”

The university’s newest policy change — eliminating standardized tests — could be the latest evidence that even admissions policies that remove barriers can’t achieve racial diversity to the degree that affirmative action would. Critics of the SAT and ACT have said the tests are biased in favor of affluent, mostly white and Asian students with better access to test preparation, tutoring and the ability to take the exams multiple times.

In 2020, the system of nine undergraduate campuses eliminated standardized tests in admissions, a decision that college access advocates hoped would result in higher enrollments of Black and Latino students.

But in fall 2021, the first term when incoming students weren’t required to take the SAT or ACT, UC enrolled roughly the same percentage of new Black and Latino students as it did in previous fall terms. Enrollment data for fall 2022 likely won’t be released until January, but UC admitted about the same proportion of Black and Latino students as it did last year. Since eliminating the tests, UC has seen a large spike in the number of Black and Latino students applying to the system, but more white and Asian students have also been applying.

Some UC officials say it shouldn’t be surprising that eliminating the tests hasn’t made a major difference in the racial makeup of UC students.

That’s mostly because test scores were already a small part of admissions decisions, which considered 14 factors, said Michelle Whittingham, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at UC Santa Cruz.

“I think individuals all throughout the country and throughout the world that were watching the University of California kind of made an assumption that things drastically changed. And that’s not the case,” Whittingham said.

At the same time, officials note that test scores are just one barrier for underrepresented students. Access to supports like college counseling, Advanced Placement classes and small class sizes remain unequal across California and the country.

Others are cautioning, though, that it’s too early to draw conclusions because the system has only been through two admission cycles without standardized tests and because there have been many other factors at play since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the brief UC filed to the Supreme Court, the university wrote that it’s not yet clear what the impact of eliminating the tests will be.

“I would hesitate to draw conclusions from any singular data point over the last two years. Combining the effects of the global pandemic, with all the various things that went on, and then with the SAT requirement changes on top of that, I think it’s going to take a while before any of that makes sense in context,” said Dale Leaman, executive director of undergraduate admissions at UC Irvine.

‘A real dampening effect’

After Proposition 209 banned UC from considering race in admissions, “freshmen enrollees from underrepresented minority groups dropped precipitously at UC,” the system wrote in the brief it filed to the Supreme Court.

That was true for each of UC’s campuses, but especially at its most selective campuses: UCLA and UC Berkeley. At UCLA, for example, Black students made up 7.13% of the freshman class in 1995 but just 3.43% in 1998. The proportion of Latino students dropped from 21.58% to 10.45% over the same period.

“There’s no question that when Prop. 209 passed, there was a real dampening effect on racial equity efforts,” said Audrey Dow, senior vice president at Campaign for College Opportunity, a group that advocates for better access to California universities.

Since Proposition 209 was approved by voters, UC has tried to increase diversity through several initiatives. The system has spent more than half a billion dollars implementing outreach programs, such as its Early Academic Outreach Program in which UC works directly with students from underserved high schools and helps them complete all admission requirements and apply for financial aid. While those kinds of programs have helped UC enroll more low-income students, they haven’t been as effective in enrolling higher percentages of Black and Latino students enrolling, according to the Supreme Court brief.

In 2001, UC also implemented a local program that now guarantees admission somewhere in the system to California residents who are in the top 9% of their high school class. The program is a way to ensure that students at schools across the state have access to UC, and it has helped the system improve its geographic diversity. However, like the outreach programs, the local guarantees “have not substantially increased the racial diversity of students admitted to UC, and they have had little impact at the most selective campuses,” UC wrote in the brief.

Also in 2001, UC introduced holistic review in admissions. The system went from primarily using grades and test scores to determine whether a student was admitted to instead using the 14 factors — now 13 with the elimination of test scores. Among the factors that UC now considers is the location of a student’s high school as well as a student’s accomplishments in light of special circumstances, such as whether the student is low-income or the first in their family to attend college.

But UC acknowledged in its Supreme Court brief that holistic review “has not been sufficient to counteract the declines in diversity after Proposition 209.”

California voters recently had a chance to reverse course and allow UC to consider affirmative action. Proposition 16, on the ballot in 2020, would have repealed Proposition 209, but it was defeated.

Admissions without test scores

Before UC got rid of standardized tests from admissions decisions, admissions officials were already considering test scores “in context,” said Whittingham, the UC Santa Cruz official.

For example, if one applicant scored a 1200 on the SAT and had the highest score at their school, that might be more impressive to application readers than an applicant who scored a 1300 but went to a school where that score was only average.

“That’s the critical piece,” Whittingham said.

That may explain why UC’s freshman cohort that entered in fall 2021 didn’t look significantly different from previous fall cohorts. About 4.4% of the class were Black students, compared to 4.1% in fall 2020. The share of Latino students was 26%, compared to about 25% the previous year, and that slight uptick may be attributed at least partly to demographic changes in California’s high school students.

Whittingham added that she thinks there’s “potential” for the elimination of test scores to eventually lead to more enrollments of Black and Latino students, but she doesn’t expect it to be a dramatic change.

Dow of the Campaign for College Opportunity said that eliminating the SAT and ACT from admissions was a “huge signal to students that you have a spot, you are welcome at the University of California.” That’s why, Dow said, UC saw a huge increase in applications for fall 2021 admissions, when freshman applications were up by about 18%, which included large spikes in the number of Black and Latino students applying.

Dow added, however, that UC won’t see those application trends translate into enrollments unless it can significantly expand capacity. “There simply isn’t the capacity to fit everybody that is eligible and deserving of a seat,” Dow said. “I think as we figure out the capacity challenge, we will continue on the track of eliminating barriers to students of color to the UC.”

UC has made it a priority to expand capacity and plans to add another 23,000 students by 2030. However, that could be challenging at some campuses, especially the most competitive ones like Berkeley, which already is overcrowded to the point that it turns away thousands of students from on-campus housing every year.

Some UC officials are optimistic that eliminating the SAT and ACT will eventually translate to more enrollments of Black and Latino students. Leaman from UC Irvine as well as admissions officials with UC San Diego and UCLA told EdSource that they think it’s possible their campuses will see a higher percentage of those students enrolling in the coming years. That could be especially true if the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic lessen since Black and Latino students have been more likely to have their educational plans disrupted by the pandemic.

If that happens, it would be a divergence from UC’s past measures that have failed to increase racial diversity across the system.

In its brief to the Supreme Court, UC wrote that its own experience demonstrates that universities need to “engage in limited consideration of race” in admissions.

“Such consideration remains justified by universities’ compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits of diversity — in bringing together young adults from all walks of life, who have had varying experiences informed by their localities, socioeconomic background, upbringing, and race, and instilling in them a capacity to appreciate each other’s viewpoints,” UC wrote.

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Michael Burke is based in Los Angeles and among other topics writes about higher education

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  1. Matt McLaughlin 1 month ago1 month ago

    The profuse rewarding of ethnicity status by the government will not be discussed by EdSource.

  2. Stop Reversity 1 month ago1 month ago

    The educational benefits of diversity are overstated and limited to arts or social science disciplines. In true STEM and business disciplines, an individual's background is largely irrelevant. Combining sodium and chloride yields the same chemical reaction regardless of who blends the contents. Calculating an economic order quantity is the same regardless of personal characteristics. Society needs highly qualified STEM and business graduates to function properly. When your life is on the … Read More

    The educational benefits of diversity are overstated and limited to arts or social science disciplines. In true STEM and business disciplines, an individual’s background is largely irrelevant. Combining sodium and chloride yields the same chemical reaction regardless of who blends the contents. Calculating an economic order quantity is the same regardless of personal characteristics. Society needs highly qualified STEM and business graduates to function properly. When your life is on the line (i.e. major surgery, driving over a bridge, etc.) do you want to trust the person who was admitted, trained, and promoted based on performance based merit or how they look?

  3. SD Parent 2 months ago2 months ago

    The core problem regarding UC admission – particularly at the most popular (most reputable and most rigorous) campuses – is the failure of public K-12 education to adequately prepare the vast majority of Latino/Hispanic, African American/Black, and Indigenous students for college. Just look at the massive achievement gaps in 11th grade CAASPP scores – which assess students for meeting academic standards shortly before students apply for college: [I'm using 2018-2019, the most recent … Read More

    The core problem regarding UC admission – particularly at the most popular (most reputable and most rigorous) campuses – is the failure of public K-12 education to adequately prepare the vast majority of Latino/Hispanic, African American/Black, and Indigenous students for college. Just look at the massive achievement gaps in 11th grade CAASPP scores – which assess students for meeting academic standards shortly before students apply for college: [I’m using 2018-2019, the most recent complete set of data published publicly, representing the entering college freshman class of 2020.]
    Asian students: 80% met standards in ELA; 70% met standards in Math
    White students: 70% met standards in ELA; 45% met standards in Math
    Latino/Hispanic students: 48% met standards in ELA; 20% met standards in Math
    Native American/Alaskan students: 45% met standards in ELA; 19% met standards in Math
    African American/Black students: 38% met standards in ELA; 14% met standards in Math

    So long as California’s education leaders persist in holding no one accountable for the failure to adequately prepare all students, the only way for UCs to admit more African American/Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Indigenous students is to lower the UC academic admission standards and/or choose to admit less-prepared students in lieu of those who are better prepared. These practices are likely to result in more students struggling in their courses and a lowering of the graduation rate.

    Hardly a win.

    If, however, the state actually enacts meaningful accountability to exert pressure to close the student achievement gaps, then not only will UC admissions better reflect the diversity of students in the state, but these students also will be prepared to succeed.

  4. Dr. Bob 2 months ago2 months ago

    Well SAT scores are the great equalizer in that 1+1=2. If a student scores 860 on the SAT and another 1200, that's a huge difference......race is irrelevant. If you can't do the math, you shouldn't be going to college. If you can't comprehend and communicate in English, it's hard to be able to grasp complex concepts.....again, should be in college. As a former tier 1 research school associate professor, it is terrible to see kids … Read More

    Well SAT scores are the great equalizer in that 1+1=2. If a student scores 860 on the SAT and another 1200, that’s a huge difference……race is irrelevant. If you can’t do the math, you shouldn’t be going to college. If you can’t comprehend and communicate in English, it’s hard to be able to grasp complex concepts…..again, should be in college. As a former tier 1 research school associate professor, it is terrible to see kids in class that don’t have the skills. They shouldn’t be there. Let them prepare like the Chinese kids do and then college will mean something. Right now, there is no skin in the game for them because the bar is set so low.

    Sorry folks, the liberals have all wrong. That’s why the Chinese, Indians and other groups way outperform US kids in the STEM subjects. And why it continues to affect our national security. Let the cream rise to the top, regardless of race … that cream, from the Asian perspective is being soured because there are too many really good quality students that want to get into highly competitive schools and they can’t because of affirmative action. SCOTUS will likely say affirmative action has run its course and can no longer be used in admissions. I hope for that day … when people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (paraphrased from MLK).

  5. Vivek K Jain 2 months ago2 months ago

    So the call / remedy is to discriminate against Americans of Asian Descent. The share of students of European ancestry is roughly the same as their percentage in general population / graduating class. So, the basic purpose is to discriminate against Americans of Asian Descent for prioritizing education. As the author has pointed out, efforts have resulted in more students from poor families, doesn't it automatically invalidate the canard that tests favor the affluent or … Read More

    So the call / remedy is to discriminate against Americans of Asian Descent. The share of students of European ancestry is roughly the same as their percentage in general population / graduating class. So, the basic purpose is to discriminate against Americans of Asian Descent for prioritizing education. As the author has pointed out, efforts have resulted in more students from poor families, doesn’t it automatically invalidate the canard that tests favor the affluent or the admission criteria are stacked against the poor. Let meritocracy rule.

  6. Adam 2 months ago2 months ago

    I love how the author of this article completely ignores the Asian factor. Asian Americans are an even smaller minority group than both African American and Hispanic Americans and yet they are well represented in all academic institutions both at the undergrad and graduate level. They never needed affirmative action to help boost their numbers, in fact if anything AA policies would harm their chances.

  7. Ze'ev Wurman 2 months ago2 months ago

    I would like to stress again what Ron Reynolds already stated in his comment, that since proposition 209 in late 1996 "the 4-year UC graduation rate for African American and Hispanic/Latinx students increased by 72 percent, with the 5-year graduation rate increasing by 14 percent." More specifically, the 4 year graduation rate for African Americans in the UC system went from 35.4% to 60.8%, a huge increase, and the 5 year from 65.3% to 75%, a … Read More

    I would like to stress again what Ron Reynolds already stated in his comment, that since proposition 209 in late 1996 “the 4-year UC graduation rate for African American and Hispanic/Latinx students increased by 72 percent, with the 5-year graduation rate increasing by 14 percent.”

    More specifically, the 4 year graduation rate for African Americans in the UC system went from 35.4% to 60.8%, a huge increase, and the 5 year from 65.3% to 75%, a still very large increase given that almost 2/3 graduate now after 4 years rather than roughly 1/3 before prop 209.

    To put it in perspective, before prop 209 the 4-year graduation difference between white and AA was over 20% and this was reduced to less than 15% after prop 209.

    Furthermore, regarding enrollment, “the relative decline in underrepresented minority SAT score-sending rates – our proxy for application rates – was small and concentrated at Berkeley and UCLA among underrepresented minorities who experienced the largest relative drop in their predicted probability of admission” (Antonovics & Backes, 2013).

    Regarding the possible “chilling effects” of Proposition 209, research found that “We find no evidence that yield rates fell for minorities relative to other students after Proposition 209, even after controlling for changes in student characteristics and changes in the set of UC schools to which students were admitted. In fact, our analysis suggests Proposition 209 had a modest ‘warming effect'”(Antonovics & Sander, 2013).

    In summary, the author of this piece seems to have relied mostly on the recently changed UC woke position that “there is not enough diversity,” while for a long time UC was proud to show that Proposition 209 actually *improved* the graduation rates of minorities and barely affected their enrollment rates. Those research results (https://www.ucop.edu/academic-affairs/prop-209/index.html) seems to have been removed from UC Office of the President web site this year, presumably to hide the conflict between UC’s current “woke” Amicus brief it filed with SCOTUS.

    Academic integrity is not what one expects from the political layers of UC and CSU these days, but I do expect EdSource reporters to be aware of that and dig beyond the PR fed to them by the establishment.

    Note: The archived version can be found here.

    Replies

    • Beto 2 months ago2 months ago

      Please don’t say latinx; it’s a linguistic abomination rejected by 97% of Latinos.

  8. ann 2 months ago2 months ago

    Doesn’t enhance the quality of our universities or its graduates.

  9. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman 2 months ago2 months ago

    The foundation for any strong university is academically-qualified students from a racial and socio-economic cross-section of the society it serves. Dropping required SAT-ACT tests for admission to UC -- with their design flaws, expense and built-in test-prep run-arounds -- was a good decision. It automatically created a more level playing field for well-qualified applicants. UC might focus its powerful influence on changing the root cause of its equity problem: UC undergraduate applicants … Read More

    The foundation for any strong university is academically-qualified students from a racial and socio-economic cross-section of the society it serves. Dropping required SAT-ACT tests for admission to UC — with their design flaws, expense and built-in test-prep run-arounds — was a good decision. It automatically created a more level playing field for well-qualified applicants.

    UC might focus its powerful influence on changing the root cause of its equity problem: UC undergraduate applicants come from a sclerotic system of economically and racially-stratified K-12 public schools with a longstanding unchanging permanent feature — the “achievement gap.” California’s poor kids of color and English language learners K-12 are systemically not educated to the same level as their White counterparts, so they will not be part of the UC applicant pool. Fix the root cause at K-12 and UC equity and inclusion will result.

  10. james mealy 2 months ago2 months ago

    Doesn’t the problem lie with inequities in K-12 funding? Can we assume that “rich” school districts better prepare students for college than “less-rich” school districts? Additionally, CSUs and UCs are significantly funded by non-resident students who pay higher fees than resident students. Is there a connection between the current lack of racial diversity and the ability to pay those higher non-resident fees?

  11. Mark Jacobson 2 months ago2 months ago

    Michael, I enjoyed reading your article on affirmative action and the UC system. However, it contains no input and feedback to the many students that were harmed by admitting students who are not qualified to be at a university. You also failed to include the fact that universities are supposed to be for qualified individuals regardless of their skin color, sex, and ethnicity. Plus, the "pandemic" did not shut down any university or school; bad, … Read More

    Michael,
    I enjoyed reading your article on affirmative action and the UC system. However, it contains no input and feedback to the many students that were harmed by admitting students who are not qualified to be at a university. You also failed to include the fact that universities are supposed to be for qualified individuals regardless of their skin color, sex, and ethnicity. Plus, the “pandemic” did not shut down any university or school; bad, unscientific and political policies shut down the schools. Students were harmed not by Covid, because young people are virtually immune to Covid, but by politicians and administrators that played bad politics.

  12. Chris Stampolis 2 months ago2 months ago

    Michael, based on your reporting, would it be accurate that the enrollment of African-American students in aggregate across the UC system matches the population of African-American California 12th graders, within a one percent margin of error? The numbers you report suggest that African-Americans are a small and shrinking percentage of the statewide population, shrinking especially among the K-12 age cohort. Therefore it would make sense to allocate support resources to all of the UC campuses … Read More

    Michael, based on your reporting, would it be accurate that the enrollment of African-American students in aggregate across the UC system matches the population of African-American California 12th graders, within a one percent margin of error?

    The numbers you report suggest that African-Americans are a small and shrinking percentage of the statewide population, shrinking especially among the K-12 age cohort. Therefore it would make sense to allocate support resources to all of the UC campuses to assist African-American students to thrive in an academic environment where for at least the next century, they should expect to be about five percent of each year’s annual total enrolled population. Even if African-Americans become “over-represented” by a point or two, they are unlikely to exceed seven percent of a total UC campus’s enrollment. In contrast, Latino students should expect to increase numbers over coming generations to become the clear majority of enrollees at all UC campuses.

    I support significant funding of support systems for African-American students at UC and CSU to enhance student retention that leads to graduation and then to success in graduate school. Let’s budget a very large number for that support. However, let’s also recognize that African-Americans are a small population minority in California. Latinos are the growing majority. While both groups are People of Color, the demographic similarities are few.

  13. Anonymous Heckler 2 months ago2 months ago

    Instead of comparing high school enrollment to UC enrollment, it would be instructive to compare graduates who’ve completed the A-G sequence with UC enrollment. Not all students have done the work, and there are certainly equity questions there, but if they’re not prepared, there’s no shame in a few years at community college before transferring. It’s a great pathway that works for lots of kids from all backgrounds who aren’t on the UC track early.

  14. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    They could enroll more international students which would provide not only racial diversity, but perhaps more importantly, cultural diversity.