UC Berkeley students in front of Sather Gate in pre-coronavirus days. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

As the movement to repeal the state ban on affirmative action reaches a crucial decision point, speculation is rising about the possible long-term impact on the enrollment of various racial and ethnic groups and low-income students at California’s public universities

Legislation to reverse the ban was approved by the state Assembly earlier this month and is awaiting action by the State Senate, where it needs a two-thirds approval by Thursday (June 25). If that happens, the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5  (ACA 5) would go to the voters statewide on Nov. 3, on the same ballot as the race for U.S. president. Its outcome could be helped by a progressive turnout against President Donald Trump and by recent protests against police brutality.

The amendment’s main goal is to revoke Proposition 209, which was approved by voters in 1996. The end of Prop. 209 would mean, among other things, that race could once again be considered by California’s public universities in recruiting efforts and admissions decisions. The proposed amendment’s backers clearly hope that the number of Black and Latino university students will rise at the University of California and the California State University. But they say they do not seek any set percentages of ethnic minorities enrolling. (In fact, U.S. Supreme Court decisions before and after Proposition 209 ban such quotas, but otherwise allow race to be a factor in college admissions.)

In a recent statement supporting the change, the UC Board of Regents noted that the proportion of “underrepresented” groups — mainly Latino and Black students — “has not kept pace with the diversity of students in California K-12 schools or with the overall California population.”

Drop in the number of Asian American students feared

Opponents, especially activists in the Chinese American community, say they fear the measure will lead to a drastic reduction in the number of Asian American students at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. Asian and Pacific Islanders now comprise 33 percent of UC undergraduates, the largest share of any racial group.

Some critics say the amendment would allow universities to prioritize race over other social factors in admissions and the result will be fewer low-income Black and Latino students enrolled as schools push to bolster those racial numbers regardless of family incomes.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, author of ACA 5, told EdSource that she is not focused on specific percentages but said that a worthy goal would be for the enrollment of Black undergraduates across UC to reach at least the percentage of Black people of all ages in the state’s population. That would mean going from current 4 percent at both UC and CSU to about 6.5 percent. She described that as approaching “a fair share.”  

If the standard were population parity, the share of Latinos could rise from 25 percent of UC undergraduates now to 39 percent. Latinos at CSU, with 44 percent, already surpass that population guideline. (Whites comprise 22 percent of UC undergraduates and 21 percent of CSU’s, compared to 36 percent of the state’s population.)

Weber said a return of affirmative action would not be mandated with any set rules, but would be “a permissive program” that allows race to be explicitly included in actions and discussions. Well before students actually apply to the universities, the change would permit K-12 schools and universities to start tutoring, recruiting and scholarship programs targeting underserved groups like young African American boys and men in middle and high school, she added.

“My assumption is that the support services will increase” for those groups in those formative years “to level the playing field.”

After Prop. 209 went into effect, the state’s universities took steps to recruit more racially diverse student bodies without breaking the law. They boosted admissions to qualified students from low-income households or in the first generation in their families to attend college. UC expanded the ways students become eligible for admissions, allowing students in the top academic 9 percent of their local high schools.

Still, African American students reached about 5 percent of UC’s enrollment before 1996, dipped to 3 percent in some years after and have not gotten above 4 percent since.

 A similar effort to repeal Proposition 209 passed the state Senate in 2014, but opposition by Asian Americans led to it being blocked in the state Assembly. This time is likely to be different, experts say, since a Democratic supermajority now controls the state Senate and the UC Regents recently endorsed the change. And if it gets to the November ballot, a more liberal and racially diverse electorate than in 1996 will be voting.

‘I think it’s going to pass’

“I think it’s going to pass,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He noted that the decisions are being made amidst nationwide protests against police brutality that have become the “biggest social movement for racial justice in 50 years.”

Still, Orfield, who supports ending Prop. 209, said he did not expect dramatic changes in university enrollments. “My guess is that it will change the outcomes by a relatively small amount.” But even a small increase in Black, Latino and Native American students at the universities “would be welcome.” Ideally, such a change would go along with increased overall enrollments and capacities at the universities, he said.

UC President Janet Napolitano described Prop. 209 as “a barrier” to enrolling more Black and Latino students. She said she hopes their proportions come close to that among high school graduates across the state. (Using that more youthful measurement, Latinos’ 55 percent is significantly larger than in the state’s overall population.) “While not necessarily a one-to-one match, we would come closer to looking like the population of students we should be educating,” she said in an interview.

Asked whether that could hurt other groups, she emphasized that UC has expanded the number of California undergraduates in recent years and should continue to, so that possibly raising the ranks of some racial groups would not limit others. Admissions do not have to be “such a zero-sum game,” she said.

CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said that his system also supports the proposed amendment. In a recent letter to Weber, he wrote that the ban on affirmative action has had “a negative impact on access to higher education, as well as retention and degree completion for historically underserved students in California, particularly those from the African-American community.”

Its supporters said that Prop. 209 was needed to stop quota systems that were resulting in reverse discrimination. Pete Wilson, California’s governor at the time of the vote, and UC regent Ward Connerly were major champions of it. Opponents of its repeal say an end to race blind admissions will mean that universities will try to match state population ratios, even if they don’t admit it. Such quotas would violate court decisions, they say.

Jason Xu, vice president of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation, said he expects Asian/Pacific islander enrollment at UC will be pushed down from the current 33 percent to about 15 percent, their share of state population. “It may not happen the first year, but I think eventually, over five years, that will happen,” he said.

Across CSU’s 23 campuses, Asians and Pacific Islanders this year comprised 16 percent of undergraduates, close to the statewide population share while Latinos hit 44 percent, 5 percentage points higher than their share of the state’s population.

Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights, the Connerly-founded group that helped pass Prop. 209, said she could not predict the “exact changes” in the student bodies but said the return of affirmative action would move it more closer to “mirror the general demographics,” regardless of students’ academic merits. She said a better solution to relatively low Black and Latino enrollments at UC would be to improve K-12 educations long before students apply to college.

Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, said he could not predict any specific changes at public universities if affirmative action returns, but expects “a numerical difference for sure.” Universities “will no longer have the excuse that they can’t do better in recruiting Black students because of Prop. 209. They relied on that excuse for too many years,” said Harper, an education and business professor who strongly supports a return of affirmative action.

Concerns about proposed changes

However, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., is worried that low-income students may suffer from the proposed changes. Kahlenberg, who opposes the repeal of Prop. 209, noted that UC over the past 25 years “has sought to create racial diversity indirectly by giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students — many of whom are African American and Latino.”

If Prop. 209 is repealed, he predicted that the UC system “will probably revert to doing what most elite universities do: admitting relatively wealthy students of all colors.” As a result, the student body is likely to become richer than it is today, said Kahlenberg.

“Because it is much cheaper to provide racial preferences to upper middle class Latino and African American students than it is to do the hard work of recruiting economically disadvantaged and working-class Latino and African American students, I fear that many of these progressive reforms could be diluted if 209 is repealed,” he wrote in an email to EdSource.

Story originally published by EdSource.