California’s Gone Without Higher Ed Affirmative Action Since 1996. Black Enrollment at Top UCs Never Recovered

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Royce Hall on the UCLA campus.  (Prayitno Photography/Flickr)

While the Trump administration caused a stir last week when it reversed Obama-era policies encouraging universities to consider racial diversity in admissions, reaction in California was muted. That’s because California’s public universities have been banned from using race in admissions decisions since voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996.

The percentage of African-American, Latino and Native American freshmen enrolling at the University of California plummeted after the proposition went into effect, especially at UC’s most selective campuses, Berkeley and UCLA.

Just as striking was the impact on applications — fewer students in those groups were bothering to even apply, a university report found.

“I offer California as a cautionary tale to the rest of the nation,” then-UC President Richard Atkinson wrote in a 2003 Washington Post op-ed. “Our experience to date shows that if race cannot be factored into admissions decisions at all, the ethnic diversity of an elite public institution such as the University of California may fall well behind that of the state it serves.”


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Latino enrollment has since rebounded at UC Berkeley and UCLA, due in part to demographic changes in the state. (More than half of California’s public high school graduates are Latino.) But it’s still not proportional to that group’s share of the state population.

Meanwhile, black student enrollment at those campuses never recovered. More than 6 percent of incoming UC Berkeley freshmen were African-American in 1995. In 2017, less than 3 percent were.

Four years ago, the Legislature considered asking voters to overturn just part of Proposition 209, but abandoned the idea after several Asian-American groups joined Republicans in opposing it, and waged vigorous protests against it. They argued that in California, reinstating affirmative action provisions in state university admissions would disadvantage Asian-Americans, who make up a plurality of the student body at some UC campuses.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.