The United States of America, by design, does not have a ruling class. We take pride in our national ethos of economic and social mobility, which makes it possible to rise from poverty and privation to positions of power. Bill Clinton’s life story reflects that arc; so does Barack Obama’s.
However, it is unlikely either man could have honed his innate talents without access to an excellent education. Clinton went to Georgetown, Oxford and Yale; Obama attended Columbia and Harvard. As both men were acutely aware, degrees from such prestigious institutions provide instant credibility and important contacts, providing a solid foundation for success.
Thus, the question of who gets admitted to America’s top universities has an importance far beyond the relatively small number of students who get accepted or rejected in any given year. What’s more, the competition for those slots — inherently limited in number — reflects an internal conflict we have yet to resolve. To remain a meritocracy, the best and brightest must be rewarded; but in a multiracial, multiethnic society, those classrooms ought to “to look like America,” as President Clinton said of his cabinet.
This emotionally charged issue has been part of the national debate since the early days of the civil rights era, when President John F. Kennedy coined the term “affirmative action.” In the 1960s, certain selective schools began giving preferential treatment to applicants from traditionally disadvantaged minority groups, justifying the approach as a way to compensate for long-standing societal discrimination.
Thirty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Bakke case — filed by a white man, Allan Bakke, who claimed he was excluded from a University of California medical school to make room for a less-qualified person of color — that race can be taken into account in admissions but only as one factor among many.
Racial quotas, which some schools had adopted, were out. That balance was reaffirmed by the court five years ago in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision, in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
O’Connor foresaw a time, perhaps a generation away, when America would be a truly color-blind society and such remedies would no longer be necessary. But a number of advocates contend that time has already arrived, and through either ballot-box initiatives or state legislation, they have succeeded in ending affirmative action at public universities in California, Florida, Michigan, Washington and, for a time, Texas.
This campaign hasn’t swept across the country with the intensity some hoped for, or feared; public opinion on the issue seems conflicted, with support or opposition for affirmative action swinging depending on the precise wording of the question. Nevertheless, the effort to outlaw the practice is ongoing; the issue will be up before voters this November in Colorado and possibly Arizona and Nebraska as well. (It failed to qualify for the ballot in Missouri and Oklahoma.)
In an attempt to move beyond the sometimes-heated rhetoric, Miller-McCune.com is examining the current state of affirmative action in higher education in a three-part series. In this opening section, we will look at what has happened in states where the practice has been banned. In part II, we will explore whether affirmative action really helps the people it is designed to benefit. And in part III, we will examine the increasingly popular idea of reshaping affirmative action to promote class and racial diversity.
Video: UC Regents eliminate affirmative action, 1995 ABC News report
Despite its reputation for liberal politics, California was the first state to prohibit public universities from taking race into account during the admissions process. The state’s voters in 1996 passed Proposition 209, a ballot measure that amended the state constitution to bar preferential treatment based on race or sex in public employment, education or contracting.
That same year, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the Hopwood v. Texas case that it was unconstitutional for that state’s public universities to consider race in their admissions process. Similar bans were enacted over the next several years in Washington state, Florida and Michigan. (The Texas decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 as part of the previously mentioned Grutter decision, and university officials there currently do take race into account when considering prospective students.)
The results have been quite dramatic among the top-ranked public schools in California, Florida and Texas, according to David Colburn, Charles Young and Victor Mellon of the University of Florida. Their research, published in the February 2008 issue of InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, looked at freshman enrollment patterns from 1995 to 2005 at the University of California’s Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego campuses, plus the University of Texas, Austin and the University of Florida.
They found the percentage of African Americans enrolling as freshmen dropped steeply at the three top UC campuses. In 1995, 6.5 percent of incoming freshmen at UC Berkeley were African Americans; by 2005, that number had fallen to just under 3 percent. (During that decade, the number of freshman applicants jumped by just over 50 percent. The increase in African-American applicants was significantly lower — around 40 percent — suggesting at least some potential black students were discouraged from even applying.)
UCLA saw a similar decline in black freshmen, from 7.3 percent to just under 2.7 percent. The drop-off was much less pronounced in Florida, from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 9.4 percent in 2005. And at the University of Texas, which has expanded its student body over the past decade, the percentage of black freshmen actually increased a tiny bit, from 4.9 percent in 1995 to 5.05 percent in 2005.
As a control group, the researchers looked at five highly rated public universities in New York, Illinois, Maryland and Arizona — states where affirmative action programs remained in effect. “Their racial and ethnic diversity numbers remained relatively constant throughout the period 1990 to 2005,” they report.
The differing minority enrollment rates in California, Florida and Texas reflect the divergent plans the three states devised to maintain diversity without using racial preferences. Each plan was structured so that a given percentage of top-ranked students from each of the state’s high schools would be guaranteed college admission.
But the details varied considerably. The Texas plan covered the top 10 percent of graduates from each school and guaranteed admission to UT Austin, the pre-eminent state school. Florida covered the top 20 percent but only guaranteed admission to the state university system, not necessarily the flagship University of Florida.
The California system was the least generous of the three. It covered only the top 4 percent of students in each high school and guaranteed only they would get into one of the UC campuses. Most ended up in less-prestigious UC schools, such as those in Riverside or Santa Cruz.
“I think this is a real loss,” said Colburn, who noted with dismay that UC San Diego had only 19 black males entering as freshmen in 2005, representing one-half of 1 percent of the class. “Is it a disaster? It’s too early to tell. We’ve always felt that the more diverse our educational environments are, the better the learning experience for all the students.”
Goodwin Liu, an assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley, expressed similar concerns. He noted the University of California system assesses applicants in a variety of ways, including grade-point average, SAT scores and life experiences, including adversities they have successfully overcome.
“What’s weird right now is that every student who applies to the University of Califorina is allowed to talk about any aspects of their background except race,” he said. “You can say (in your application) you grew up poor; you were an immigrant; you were raised in a single-parent household. But if you say you grew up African-American or Latino, the admissions office is not allowed to give any weight to it whatsoever. That strikes me as an odd form of discrimination — the idea this one characteristic is singled out for irrelevance.
“We’re headed down a dangerous path,” Liu added. “It presents real problems for UC Berkeley to have as unrepresentative a student population as it does, given the idea that the University of California is supposed to serve the people of the state. There’s a disconnect between what you see on the campus and what the population of California has become.”
Of course, California’s population is becoming more Hispanic, while Hispanic freshmen enrollment is down at both UC Berkeley and UCLA. (It is level or slightly up at UC San Diego and at the Universities of Florida and Texas, according to Colburn’s research.) In contrast, Asian enrollment is way up at all five schools — and white enrollment has declined on all five campuses.
“While the percent of whites as a proportion of the population had been declining in all three states, thus lending justification for the decline in the number of white students, this is an important trend,” Colburn concluded. “For those who campaigned for the elimination of affirmative action in the belief it would advantage the admission of white students, the trend … can hardly be satisfying.”
Nevertheless, in the absence of affirmative action, whites and Asians dominate the elite campuses. And that makes a lot of educators uncomfortable.
“Fifty years from now, we could have a situation where only about a quarter of students enrolled in elite institutions are minorities, when 60 percent of the country is minority,” said John Yun, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That’s not implausible.”
Certainly not to Liu, who finds the prospect unsettling.
“People say, ‘Why don’t we get rid of affirmative action and focus on the root of the problem: the tremendous racial disparity in (the quality level of) K-12 schools?’” he noted. “That would be a fine argument (for the elimination of affirmative action) if we had a serious social commitment to do that. But the fact is we don’t, and I would suggest there isn’t a lot of willpower to change that.
“The way we’re headed, at least in California, is toward a two-tiered society that is stratified on the basis of race. That is just not a functional arrangement for a functional democracy.”