UC Berkeley campus

Credit: Elena Zhukova/University of California

UC Berkeley, shown, and UCLA were most drastically affected by Proposition 209, which barred consideration of race or gender in college admissions in California.

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Nearly a quarter-century ago, the University of California Board of Regents championed a state law that forbid the use of race or gender in college admissions.

Now, as the nation reckons with the longstanding effects of systemic racism, the UC Regents have unanimously backed an effort to overturn that law — citing 25 years of data that show race-neutral admissions have harmed UC’s ability to enroll a student body that reflects the full diversity of California.

“If we are going to be serious about creating a university that truly serves the public interest, we cannot be silent. We cannot be neutral,” UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez said during a June 15 Board of Regents meeting to discuss the repeal of Prop. 209. “We must express ourselves in what we think [is] the best future for our university and our state.”

California voters in November will be asked to weigh in on Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 (ACA 5), put forth by California Assembly Member Shirley Weber. If approved by a majority of voters, it would repeal Prop. 209 and amend California’s constitution.

UC and its employees are prohibited from using university time or resources on ballot measures, but UC Regents may take a stand on issues that affect the university.

Race-neutral admissions have exacerbated inequality by failing to account for discrimination, structural barriers, and a lack of access to opportunity and resources that students of color routinely face, the regents said.

Regent Chair John A. Pérez
UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez
Courtesy photo

Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islanders are more likely to live in areas with underresourced schools and fewer community services, for example. And they are more likely to face discrimination at school and in jobs, as well as other structural issues that have disproportionately affected admission to UC.

“To say that a color-blind model is the right structure for our university is not to say that we’re color blind, but that we’re blind to systemic racism and other structural challenges,” Chair Pérez said. “It is to deny the humanity of those who live with those challenges day in and day out.”

Opportunity ‘to right a historic wrong’

In taking a symbolic step to reverse Prop. 209, the regents pointed to the Board’s historic role in bringing about the legislation about.

In 1995, led by UC Regent Ward Connerly, the Board voted to end the university’s consideration of race or gender in hiring and admissions decisions. A year later, Connerly championed passage of Prop. 209, which barred public institutions in California from “granting preferential treatment” to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

Its passage had an immediate and dramatic effect on UC enrollment, especially at the system’s most competitive campuses.

At UC Berkeley, the most sought-after campus at the time, the percentage of Black, Latino and Native American students admitted to the university dropped 55 percent in one year following the implementation of the restrictions. African American students alone saw a drop in offers by 64 percent, according to a press release issued at the time.

Actual enrollment of students from underrepresented groups entering UC Berkeley as freshmen fell from 807 students in 1995 to 412 students in 1998. That occurred even as the university as a whole was welcoming more students. Thus, the decline as a percentage of total freshmen was much greater: from 24 percent to 11 percent. UCLA, the second-most competitive campus, saw similarly striking statistics.

Prop 209's effects chart
Credit: University of California

The impact on graduate and professional programs was also pronounced.

UC Berkeley law school, for example, was one of the most diverse in the nation prior to Prop. 209. According to UC Regents Vice Chair Cecilia Estolano, who was a student there at the time, the law school enrolled a single African American student in the year following Prop. 209, and that student had deferred admission from the year before.

“We’ve got a generation of research that documents the harmful impacts,” of Prop. 209, Regent Estolano said. “We’ve studied it, we know the impediments it’s created, we know how difficult it has been to live up to our ideals with these impediments in place.”

“This is our opportunity to right a historic wrong.”

Efforts to promote diversity have yielded mixed results

Over 25 years, the university has engaged in multiple efforts — from policy changes to outreach — to mitigate the effects of Prop 209.

UC has developed partnerships with hundreds of schools and community groups to provide academic and practical support so that more underrepresented students are eligible and competitive for UC admission. These programs reach more than 100,000 students in communities all over California that have low college-going rates.

In 2001, the university implemented more sweeping policies aimed at expanding the diversity of its student body.

“Eligibility in the Local Context” (ELC) guarantees UC admission to anyone in the top four percent of their school’s graduating class. The policy aims to ensure that students aren’t denied admission to UC over issues related to the quality of the schools they attend, such as whether their school has the resources to offer advanced placement classes.

The university also adopted a policy of “comprehensive review,” which allows admissions counselors to use multiple measures to evaluate student promise and achievement, including community service, family responsibilities and how well a student has navigated challenges and adversity.

In evaluating applicants, admissions officers have always sought to admit a mix of students who bring a varied array of backgrounds and talents to the university. If voters support ACA 5, UC’s comprehensive review policy would still be in effect, but counselors could also consider race, should they chose to do so, along with many other factors.

UC has also just taken steps to end the use of the SAT and ACT as a factor in admissions. UC Regents voted in May to end their use, citing concerns that standardized tests disadvantage low-income students, students of color and those who lack resources to prepare for the test.

Policies such as ELC and holistic admission have improved the diversity of UC’s student body, but they still haven’t been enough to keep pace with California’s demographic shifts. And they fall short of the positive impacts on diversity that UC saw with its prior admissions practices.

Meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse state

Over the last two decades, as UC has expanded enrollment of California students, the proportion of students from underrepresented groups has grown.

Yet, UC still has a way to go before it reflects the demographics of California high school graduates: 59 percent of California high school graduates in 2016 identified as Black, Latino, Native American or Pacific Islander, while those same groups accounted for just 37 percent of UC freshmen who were California residents.

Maintaining a student body reflective of California, the regents said, is essential to providing a world-class education. Students need exposure to a range of people and perspectives to gain the rich experiences and knowledge that will help them flourish in a multicultural society.

An engine of economic mobility

Diversity is also critical to the university’s role as an engine of social mobility.

“We affect generational wealth in ways other institutions do not, from education to jobs to businesses to health care and research,” said UC Regent Christine Simmons.

Economic studies show UC does a better job than many comparable institutions of moving students up the income ladder.

Some 44 percent of UC students come from low-income families. Within five years of graduation, half of those students have moved up the income scale and are earning more than the households they came from.

Lack of diversity aggravates income and opportunity gaps: It means fewer students from underrepresented groups seek out or are able to obtain an education that has served as a proven ticket to opportunity.

While UC officials say removing the restrictions of Prop. 209 would be a good start to increasing diversity, many noted there will be more work for the university to do to ensure Black, Latino and other underrepresented minority students flock to, enroll in and thrive at UC.

“Every Californian should have an equal opportunity and it’s clear that from history and from our own data that not every Californian has had equal opportunity to enter into the University of California and succeed,” said UC Regent Eloy Ortiz Oakley, a graduate of UC Irvine who is now the president of the California Community College system.

“We rarely get a moment like this to put a stamp on history. We did it once before. We have an opportunity to do it again, and this time to be on the right side of history.”