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Here's what happened when affirmative action ended at California public colleges

University at California Los Angeles is just starting to catch up to the diversity numbers it saw before an affirmative action ban took effect in 1998, according to a university official. Students walk past Royce Hall at the UCLA campus.
Jae C. Hong
University at California Los Angeles is just starting to catch up to the diversity numbers it saw before an affirmative action ban took effect in 1998, according to a university official. Students walk past Royce Hall at the UCLA campus.

For decades, the question of affirmative action — whether colleges should consider race when deciding which students to admit — has been the subject of national debate.

And as the nation's highest court has grown more conservative in recent years, court-watchers wondered if it would reverse decades-old precedents allowing affirmative action.

This week, it happened: The Supreme Court struck down race-based admissions practices at public and private universities and colleges.

Supreme Court justices ruled that the admissions policies at the University of North Carolina, one of the country's oldest public universities, and Harvard University, the country's oldest private university, violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

As college admissions offices prepare to tailor their policies to the Supreme Court ruling, California offers lessons on what may be in store for the rest of the country.

Here's the upshot: A quarter-century after California banned race-based admissions at public universities, school officials say they haven't been able to meet their diversity and equity goals — despite more than a half billion dollars spent on outreach and alternative admissions standards.

In an amicus brief sent to the Supreme Court in support of Harvard and UNC's race-based admissions programs, University of California chancellors said that years of crafting alternative race-neutral policies have fallen short.

"Those programs have enabled UC to make significant gains in its system-wide diversity," the brief said. "Yet 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 the system's most selective schools, the university leaders said.

An affirmative action ban first caused a huge drop in diversity at top California universities

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, an affirmative action ban at public universities in the state. Before the ban, UC Berkeley and UCLA were roughly representative of the California high school graduate population who were eligible for enrollment at universities, according to Zachary Bleemer, an economist at Princeton University.

The ban first took effect with the incoming class of '98. Subsequently, diversity plummeted at UC's most competitive campuses. That year, enrollment among Black and Latino students at UCLA and UC Berkeley fell by 40%, according to a 2020 study by Bleemer. As a result of the ban, Bleemer found that Black and Latino students who might have gotten into those two top schools enrolled at less competitive campuses.

"Black and Hispanic students saw substantially poorer long-run labor market prospects as a result of losing access to these very selective universities," Bleemer told NPR. "But there was no commensurate gain in long-run outcomes for the white and Asian students who took their place."

Black and Latino students were also less likely to earn graduate degrees or enter lucrative STEM fields.

"If you follow them into the labor market, for the subsequent 15 or 20 years, they're earning about 5% lower wages than they would have earned if they'd had access to more selective universities under affirmative action," Bleemer said.

The ban has in fact acted as a deterrent to prospective Black and Latino students, Bleemer said. His study found that high-performing minority students were subsequently discouraged from applying to schools where minority students were underrepresented.

"Most do not want to attend a university where there's not a critical mass of same race peers," said Mitchell Chang, the associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. That's because attending a school made less diverse by an affirmative action ban, "puts them at greater risk of being stereotyped and being isolated," he said.

These findings "provide the first causal evidence that banning affirmative action exacerbates socioeconomic inequities," Bleemer's study said.

A learning curve

Faced with plummeting minority enrollment, admissions offices began a years-long effort to figure out ways to get their numbers back up.

Admissions offices pivoted to a more holistic approach, looking beyond grades and test scores. Starting in the early 2000s, the UC system implemented a couple of initiatives to increase diversity: The top-performing students graduating most high schools in the state were guaranteed admission to most of the eight UC undergraduate campuses. It also introduced a comprehensive review process to "evaluate students' academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to them" — using an array of criteria including a student's special skills and achievements, special circumstances and location of high school.

In 2020, the UC system eliminated standardized test scoresas an admission requirement, nixing a factor that advocates say disadvantages underserved students.

However, the effort to boost diversity has come with a heavy price tag. Since Prop 209 took effect, UC has spent more than a half-billion dollars on outreach programs and application reviews to draw in a more diverse student body.

It's taken 25 years of experimentation through race-neutral policies, but UC schools have begun to catch up to the racial diversity numbers lost in the wake of the affirmative action ban, says UCLA vice chancellor Chang.

"There was no magic bullet. Some things worked better than other things. And this is also work that doesn't happen overnight," Chang said.

Still, the California schools are unable to meet their diversity goals systemwide. Chang says his school is not where it wants to be. It still enrolls far fewer Black and Latino students than their share of California high school graduates — a problem it didn't have before the affirmative action ban.

As with the UC system, experts think that across the country, similarly competitive universities will be most affected by the Supreme Court's ruling.

Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College, a small Southern California school that wasn't subject to the state ban, fears the selective, private university will lose its racial diversity under the nationwide affirmative action ban.

Starr says that being able to consider race has allowed her school to ensure its ability to put together a diverse class.

"Having a campus that looks like the world in which our students will go onto live is really important just as a bedrock value," she said.

NPR's Adrian Florido contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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