Since California and Michigan ended affirmative action in college admissions years ago, top universities in both states have tried a range of race-neutral strategies to recruit Black, Hispanic, Native American, and multicultural students, including more outreach to low-income students.
The results have proven to be sobering, especially at the most selective campuses, a fact which has caught the attention of higher education officials in New England, home to some of the nation’s leading elite colleges.
“Are we comfortable with that result? I’m personally not,” said Vincent Rougeau, president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
At UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, enrollment of underrepresented students of color sharply declined after the bans, and, despite some recent improvements, the numbers still lag. While there are measures colleges can take, administrators and experts on affirmative action say there is no substitute for privileging race as an admissions criterion as they work to build a diverse student body.
The experience of the three so-called public Ivies foreshadows what other selective colleges may face if the US Supreme Court imposes a nationwide ban on the use of affirmative action in college admissions in the coming months. Colleges with the lowest acceptance rates, like the top public and elite private colleges, have the most to lose from a ban because they receive tens of thousands of applications for limited seats and aspire to reflect the broader society, experts said.
Femi Ogundele, dean for undergraduate admissions at UC Berkeley, said that the university’s intensive efforts to recruit by using such race-neutral means as ending SAT requirements and outreach to high schools with large populations of low-income or minority students have not resulted in the racial diversity that officials believe is vital to the educational experience.
“We should be more diverse if we truly want to reflect the state,” Ogundele said. “I would love to be able to consider race.”
In 1996, California voters approved the nation’s first ballot initiative banning consideration of race and gender in public education, hiring, and contracting. The impact of the measure, known as Proposition 209, on diversity at UC Berkeley and UCLA has been dramatic.
At Berkeley, the number of Black and Latino students in the first-year class was cut in half in the immediate aftermath of the ban. The numbers have improved over the last 25 years, but have not rebounded entirely and do not come close to the state’s demographics. UCLA saw similar results following the ban.
At the University of Michigan, enrollment of Black students has fallen 44 percent and the number of Native American students has dropped 90 percent since the ban in that state was passed in 2006. “This reduction in diversity not only denies students the educational benefits of a diverse campus, it negatively affects students’ wellbeing,” the university wrote in the court filing in the Supreme Court case that began with a challenge to admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
The University of Michigan did not make an official available for an interview.
Like UCLA and Berkeley, Michigan adopted wide-ranging race-neutral efforts after the ban went into effect, including scholarship programs for low-income students, opening a center that works with high schools with significant enrollment of underrepresented minorities to encourage students to pursue higher education, and accepting fewer students early since such programs tend to appeal to wealthier students and families.
Officials wrote that the changes took “vast resources and efforts,” and still did not significantly increase enrollment of underrepresented minorities.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case during its current term, which ends in June. The nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions argued that affirmative action in college admissions was unfair and led to discrimination against more academically qualified applicants, many of them Asian. Lawyers for Harvard and UNC countered that the practice is still necessary today in a society where racism and segregation persist.
Colleges across New England are preparing for the anticipated end of affirmative action by reviewing policies and programs that could be at risk, and studying what’s been learned from states like California, consultants and higher education leaders said.
“All of our schools are anxiously waiting to see what the Supreme Court is going to say,” said Robert McCarron, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. “Our schools strongly believe that institutions need to have the flexibility to consider all factors in creating a diverse campus that’s able to reflect the lived experience of society.”
Berkeley economics professor David Card, on behalf of Harvard’s lawyers, studied how Harvard’s student makeup would change if it eliminated the consideration of race. Based on data from the class of 2019, Card estimated that the share of Black students in the first admitted class after a ban would drop from 14 percent to 6 percent; Hispanic student enrollment would fall from 14 percent to 9 percent.
The court’s decision comes at a time when affirmative action remains unpopular with the public, according to recent surveys. A public opinion poll by Reuters and market research firm Ipsos found that 62 percent of Americans say race and ethnicity should not be considered in college admissions.
Proponents of affirmative action, meanwhile, say the practice is still needed to counteract inequities in K-12 schools. Many college officials add that diversity is important to prepare students for lives and careers in a multiracial world, in addition to the societal benefits that come from having doctors, politicians, and business leaders of all different backgrounds.
New research from Georgetown University found that selective colleges will be unlikely to achieve a level of diversity that mirrors society if they can’t consider race in the admissions process. Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce, which published the research, offered a bleak assessment on whether colleges will be able to achieve diverse enrollments without affirmative action.
“There really is no hope,” Carnevale said. “This is very bad news for Boston and for New England in general, because New England is the North Star for elite liberal arts colleges in America.”
The impact of bans on affirmative action reverberates far beyond college campuses, researchers say.
In California, about 15 years after Proposition 209 went into effect, there were about 1,000 fewer high-earning Black and Hispanic professionals in the state, said Zachary Bleemer, a Yale researcher who studied the impact of the California ban. This happened, Bleemer said, because those Black and Hispanic applicants were no longer being admitted to the state’s most selective public schools, like UC Berkeley and UCLA. Instead, they were going to less rigorous academic programs that often resulted in lower paying jobs.
“They became a little less likely to earn degrees in lucrative fields and the sciences,” Bleemer said in an interview. “So, there were costs for Black and Hispanic students.”
Some question why it is important for the student populations at elite colleges to mirror that of the country as a whole, when the Ivy League and similar schools enroll such a small percentage of college students in the United States. But these universities graduate a disproportionate number of the people who go on to become leaders in business, government, and education, said Rougeau, the Holy Cross president.
“In this country that’s diverse and increasingly so, it’s important that diversity be reflected in the most selective institutions,” he said.
Ogundele arrived at UC Berkeley in 2019 from Stanford University, where he was an assistant dean of diversity. He was determined to help the college recruit more Black, Hispanic, and multicultural students. The college had already banned preferential treatment to the children of alumni or children of donors, policies that critics say largely benefit white, affluent students and families. Such preference for “legacy” applicants is common at many New England schools.
But despite those efforts, which have led to some improvements at Berkeley, he still wishes he could consider race.
“To me, it’s the purest way that we can do admissions, but I do feel that we are at a significant disadvantage when we can’t consider race or gender,” Ogundele said.
Some of the recent admissions tactics have led to moderate gains in diversity at Berkeley, especially for Hispanic students. They include widening recruitment to include places the university did not historically visit, rather than relying on “feeder schools,” or affluent high schools that send cohorts of students to elite universities year after year.
The university also launched an admissions website in Spanish to be more inclusive of non-English speaking families, and officials evaluate an applicant’s academic profile based on the individual high school’s offerings on such things as the number of advanced placement classes, which tend to vary among schools.
Still, Berkeley officials have faced skepticism during recruitment trips to low-income communities and high schools where people feel they have been historically excluded from elite campuses, Ogundele said.
“I tell my staff that the skepticism is something that we earned,” he said. “The only way that we’re going to be able to combat the skepticism is through consistency, so making sure that we will be back next year, we’ll be back the following year, and the following year.”