Diversity drama at the University of California

Black, Latino and Native American student numbers plunged when affirmative action ended. Now U.C. says they're back up -- but a close look at enrollment tells a more complex story.

Published June 24, 2002 8:34PM (EDT)

In the five years since the University of California regents banished affirmative action and implemented race-blind admissions policies, enrollment news has been fairly consistent: one headline after another documenting steep declines in diversity in the U.C. system, often with the spotlight on the flagship Berkeley campus.

The reversals began in 1997, when Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law revealed stunning news: a 65 percent decline in blacks, Latinos and Native Americans -- minority groups considered "underrepresented" at U.C. -- admitted under the new policy, and only one black student in its entering class. Then, a year later, despondent administrators announced the first freshmen admissions numbers under the race-blind regime: the proportion of so-called underrepresented minorities in the first group of freshmen admitted to Berkeley after the affirmative action ban had fallen by more than 50 percent.

Two months ago, much to the relief of university officials, the narrative changed. "Minority Levels Rebound at U.C.," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "Admission Up for Minorities in California," said the New York Times. "U. of California Admits More Minority Students," offered the Chronicle of Higher Education. For the first time in five years, the stories explained, the proportion of underrepresented minorities admitted to the U.C. system for the coming fall surpassed the pre-ban level of 18.8 percent, inching up to 19.1 percent.

Affirmative action foes say that the data prove diversity can be achieved without racial preferences. "It's really demonstrating that there are programs and practices that we can put in place of explicit preferences that will produce, for those who are concerned about such things, this racial and ethnic diversity as a natural consequence of the policies that are in place, rather than policies that engineer that outcome," exulted Ward Connerly, the regent who spearheaded U.C.'s affirmative action ban as well as Proposition 209, which also banned race-conscious decision making around the state.

With the Supreme Court poised to review a challenge to race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Michigan, expect more attention to U.C.'s progress in achieving diversity without affirmative action. But that attention may well produce more questions, because the reality of race in the nine-campus U.C. system is far more complex than the latest headlines, or Connerly's elation, suggest. For one thing, the drop in minority freshmen around the system was never as bad as at the selective UC-Berkeley and UCLA campuses. The modest system-wide dip of 11 percent garnered less attention than Berkeley's dramatic 55 percent plunge. So the current headlines about a return to 1997 diversity levels in the entire U.C. system - which didn't fall that much in the first place -- are a little misleading.

Racial diversity at Berkeley is a very different story. Though it has inched up, underrepresented minority enrollment remains 30 percent below pre-1998 levels. Among students admitted to the flagship campus for this fall, 17.5 percent were underrepresented minorities -- down from 25.3 percent in 1997. The decline is matched by an increase in white and Asian admissions: For this fall, 40 percent of admitted students are Asian American -- up from 35 percent in 1997, and another 33 percent are white, compared to 31 percent five years ago. (The remaining 10.5 percent are students who described themselves as "other," or didn't state a race or ethnicity at all.)

"I think the university is distorting what's happening," said Bob Laird, who retired in 1999 as admissions director at Berkeley. "I think they're doing everything they can to put things selectively and carefully in the best possible light. I don't think it's an accurate reflection of what's really going on."

The news is slightly better at UCLA, where underrepresented minority admissions declined from 21.2 percent in 1997 to 17.9 percent for 2002. Asian Americans amount to 42 percent of admits for the fall, and white students constitute 30 percent, slight changes from 40 percent and 31 percent five years earlier.

One reason the U.C. system has recovered its lost diversity is that California high school graduates have become more colorful than ever, mainly due to an increase in the state's Latino population. In fact, black, Latino and American Indian students are actually more underrepresented at UC, compared to their statewide numbers, than they were back in 1997. The percentage of high school graduates who are Latino, for example, increased by 8 percent in the last five years of the 20th century, but as a proportion of admitted freshmen, Latinos increased by only 6 percent.

"Latinos are going to grow fairly significantly ... simply because of the demographic changes of the state. African-Americans are a more difficult problem, because their population base is not growing," said John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the UC-Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Black students' share of the admitted freshman class fell 11 percent system-wide during the 1997-2002 period though their proportion of high school graduating classes slipped by only 1 percent. And at UC-Berkeley, the proportion of black students is still down by nearly 50 percent from 1997.

The numbers have been even more dismal at UC's highly selective professional schools: The case of only one black student's being admitted to Berkeley's Boalt Law School in 1997 was the worst of it, but the downward trend has been clear: From 1994 to 2001, the number of African-Americans admitted to the three law schools on U.C. campuses declined 55 percent, and the number of Latinos fell by 33 percent, according to numbers compiled by the office of state Assemblyman Manny Diaz, D-San Jose.

Medical school numbers aren't much more encouraging: admission of underrepresented minorities to any medical school in California has fallen by 40 percent since its peak in 1994, according to a special report on medical school diversity. These figures aren't expected to rebound quickly, since U.C. applicants make up a significant portion of the overall med-school applicant pool. Public health officials are concerned, given that minority doctors are more likely to work in underserved communities.

"My sense is that there's really a crisis," said Laird, who is writing a book about the affirmative action battles at U.C. "For African-American students at Berkeley and UCLA and UC-San Diego, I think the situation is extremely serious. I don't see the longer-term prospect of repairing that."

Berkeley linguistics professor John McWhorter, who is African-American, strongly disagrees. A harsh critic of affirmative action, he says black students' numbers at Berkeley and elsewhere in the system will rise over time, as they meet the U.C. system's high standards.

"We're not at the point where the numbers are where they were before. But the reason why the numbers were where they were was a disabling, condescending policy that was making a lot of people feel good but was not really fixing the system," McWhorter contends.

As McWhorter points out, Berkeley's fall has been a windfall for other U.C. campuses -- particularly Riverside -- which are now enrolling more minorities than they were under affirmative action. Administrators who foresaw that pattern made a point of trying to keep their minority numbers up by encouraging applicants to consider Riverside and other less prestigious campuses. They told kids that they would get a fine education at any U.C. -- and even started a "referral pool," so that qualified students declined by one of the competitive campuses could be admitted to another campus, even if they hadn't sent in an application.

All eight undergraduate campuses (UC-San Francisco is devoted to the health sciences) share the same minimum requirements. The prestigious Berkeley and UCLA campuses, however, turn away roughly three students for each one they admit -- far more than their sister campuses. And more of the students those campuses admit actually decide to enroll than those admitted to their sister schools. For instance, 46 percent of students admitted to Berkeley and 41 percent of those admitted to UCLA last year enrolled. But at UC-Riverside, only 19 percent of students admitted by the campus enrolled last year, meaning eight of 10 chose to go elsewhere -- such as another U.C. campus or, in many cases, a private school.

In a cascade effect, the other campuses are now admitting and enrolling minority students who, in the past, might have been accepted to Berkeley or UCLA thanks to affirmative action. In fact, only one campus has actually admitted a higher proportion of underrepresented minorities: UC-Riverside, a fast-growing school that, unlike some of the other campuses, is able to accept 100 percent of applicants with the minimum qualifications. But when it comes to enrollment of those who are admitted, minorities who in the past would have turned down Riverside or Irvine to go to UCLA, for example, now don't have that option. The result: Riverside, Irvine, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara have higher proportions of enrolled minorities without affirmative action.

"What we've seen is a reshuffling," says McWhorter. "It's not like all these kids have to go out of state or to community colleges. The idea that reshuffling is a horror seems to imply that those second-tier U.C. schools give you a raw deal."

"There is, of course, a correlation between going to a Berkeley or a UCLA and going on to graduate school in professions that are very high paying or high status. But the correlation isn't as high on the brand-name institutions as people think," said Douglass.

But others at Berkeley say that even if students can survive without attending Berkeley, the declining diversity is damaging the campus itself: "It's ridiculous for U.C. to say we have met our diversity requirement system-wide, so we don't have to worry about Berkeley and UCLA," said ethnic studies professor Ling-chi Wang. "We do have to worry about it, because the quality of education is going to go down. Academic excellence is linked to diversity. I have visibly seen [the number of] minority students declining in front of me each year. It's very, very disheartening."

At Riverside, about 26 percent of the students admitted for the fall are underrepresented minorities. That's where Berkeley was in 1997, but no one is venturing a guess as to when -- or whether -- those numbers will return at the flagship campus.

Even if it hasn't paid off yet at Berkeley and UCLA, university officials have reformed the admissions process to try to reach more of the underrepresented, without affirmative action. Without these reforms, it's clear that such students' numbers would have plummeted even more dramatically.

The university has de-emphasized SAT scores, for instance, in favor of the SAT II achievement tests. Some argue that the policy favors students who speak another language, such as Spanish, at home, because those students typically earn perfect scores on foreign-language achievement tests. Next month, the regents will decide whether to discard the SAT altogether or to use a new version that was revamped to U.C.'s specifications.

U.C. now also conducts a "comprehensive review" that looks at a student's entire application, not just grades and test scores. It has also adopted a "4 percent plan" that guarantees admission to a U.C. campus for students in the top 4 percent of their high school class, as long as they take the right courses and tests. This helps ensure that kids in the top 4 percent of inner-city high schools, who tend to be low-income and minority students, get into the system alongside kids from elite prep schools.

"How much of an influence have some of these changes had on the racial mix?" wonders Douglass. "We don't know for sure."

Many of the top "4 percenters" would have applied and been admitted to U.C. without the program, but a university analysis suggests that the 4 percent program stimulated an additional 2,000 students to apply for the fall 2001 freshman class -- out of a total of more than 48,000 applicants. The major beneficiaries of the policy appear to be Latino and rural students. For example, about one-eighth of the Latino applicants in 2001 wouldn't have applied without the new program, the study concluded.

And the move to "comprehensive review" seems to have changed admissions patterns on some campuses as well. Until last year UC-San Diego, for example, used a numerical formula to enroll students. Under the new comprehensive-review policy, the campus admitted 32 percent more underrepresented minorities than last year. It still hasn't hit pre-209 levels, but it's getting close: While 15.3 percent of admissions to that campus were underrepresented minorities in 1997, this year's proportion is 14.4 percent. The number of Asian-Americans rose slightly, from 38.1 percent to 38.7 percent, while the number of whites declined from 39.9 percent to just 36.5 percent of those admitted.

Exact freshman enrollment levels for 2002 won't be known until the fall, but preliminary student responses suggest that 15 percent of those enrolling at Berkeley and 19.7 percent of those at UCLA will be underrepresented minorities. UC-Davis and UC-San Diego each expect to enroll classes with fewer than 13 percent minorities -- apparently because some of the students they admitted opted to attend other schools.

Riverside, on the other hand, is projecting an entering class that is nearly one-third black, Latino, or Native American.

"We certainly are not where we should be in terms of diversity," said Mae Brown, UC-San Diego's acting assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management. "We are not where we need to be or should be in terms of underrepresented students. We were not there in 1997 or in 1995."

"These aren't processes that are amenable to overnight quick fixes," concedes Richard Black, Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment. "It takes a sustained effort over time, and that's what we're doing and that's what we're going to continue to do."

To that end, the university has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last few years on outreach programs aimed at improving public schools and steering students onto the college track. But even the most enthusiastic proponents admit these efforts will take years to yield results.

To Wang, the university should reflect the society around it: "In an ideal world, I would love to see a proportional representation in our student body. I'm hoping that as we turn into a more diverse population, the university will reflect the diversity that is so richly represented in California, but I'm kind of discouraged."

It's true that U.C.'s 19.1 percent underrepresented minorities admitted for this fall's freshman class is far from the 40 percent of public high school graduates who come from those groups. And it irks some public education advocates to see private universities do a better job of reaching those groups, since the state's ban on affirmative action doesn't apply to them. Of Stanford University's 2001-02 freshman students, 22.2 percent were underrepresented minorities, compared with the U.C.-wide figure that year of 17.7 percent. If the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan, however, and strikes down the Bakke decision, Stanford will have to operate by the same rules as U.C.

But when it comes to another kind of diversity -- socioeconomic diversity -- the U.C. system clearly has the edge over private colleges. For years some advocates have said universities should focus on disadvantage, not race, in selecting students. In the heyday of affirmative action, some questioned why the daughter of a black surgeon who'd gone to the state's best schools, for instance, would get preference over the son of a white welfare mother, and the lack of attention to the socioeconomic disadvantage suffered by kids of whatever race rankled some social justice advocates. Even before it was forced to drop race-based affirmative action, U.C. had been paying attention to its applicants' socioeconomic backgrounds, and its diligence has paid off.

When the James Irvine Foundation looked at Pell Grant recipients, it found that as of the year 2000, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, and UC-San Diego were each enrolling more poor and working-class students than any other top-ranked university in the country -- public or private. (The other five undergraduate campuses weren't evaluated, because they're not in the nation's top 40 schools, but they have similar enrollment patterns of low-income students.)

More than a third of the students at UCLA, and around 30 percent of those at Berkeley and San Diego, were receiving Pell Grants. The only other institution that came close was the University of Southern California, at 27 percent -- and the next best performer among public schools was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with 12.5 percent. Stanford, with 10.8 percent, ranked 24th out of 40, and Harvard, at 6.8 percent, was second to last.

"For any campus, it's important to look at the extent to which they are serving the population, whether it's their state or country or community. It's important to look at that in a number of dimensions. Ethnicity is one. Class is another," said Robert Shireman, Irvine's higher education program director.

"The fact that the U.C.'s are doing such a good job of enrolling an economically diverse group tells me that it would be difficult for them to address their low enrollment of African-American and Latino students by focusing solely on economic issues," he added. "They're already doing that pretty well."

The new policies -- comprehensive review, the 4 percent program, and admissions criteria that consider whether an applicant's parents attended college -- have honed the university's ability to define and focus on promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many believe a "dual admissions" program -- which would offer automatic admission to certain community college students who choose to transfer to U.C. -- would also help boost underrepresented minority enrollment, but that measure has yet to receive state funding.

California's complicated racial landscape means there is no proxy for race in this state -- many policies designed to assist low-income students, for example, would assist many Asian-Americans, who are not underrepresented. But there are other advantages in new policies that look more comprehensively at applicants.

"There is no magic bullet," said Douglass. "And one doesn't make policy only with respect to diversity and ethnicity and race. If there's any good that's coming out of this politically contentious period, it is a comprehensive look at why the university admits students and what are our responsibilities. It's been a much more vigorous and critical look at policies that might better fit our social contract with the state of California. The system had become too myopic."

"The university has been led to concentrate much more on real, fundamental disadvantages, ones over which no one has any dispute," agrees UC-Davis chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, who suspects that many of the innovations could not have been adopted if affirmative action were still in place. Of the nine chancellors who opposed the regents' 1995 decision, Vanderhoef is the only one still in his post, giving him a unique vantage point for making his assessment.

"I wouldn't say I'm satisfied with the state we're in, but I'm satisfied with the trend and the intentions," he said. "What I know for sure is that it's not the end of the world. It's not the end of underrepresented minorities being able to go to the university."

By Pamela Burdman

Pamela Burdman is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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