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Campus Diversity Will Be a Struggle Without Race-Based Admissions, History Shows

Alternative strategies have been less effective.

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States that have tried to enroll more Black and Hispanic students in state universities without using race-based admissions policies have seen the numbers of those students slip — especially at elite institutions.

Nine states had affirmative action bans before last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking it down nationwide. Those states and others have tried various strategies to maintain diversity without using race-based admissions. They include costly recruitment drives, guaranteed admission to high-ranking high school students and the elimination of preferences for relatives of alumni.

Those strategies have had an impact. But overall, they haven’t been as effective as more explicit race-based preferences, illustrating how difficult it will be to maintain diverse campuses in the wake of last week’s decision.

Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington had affirmative action bans in place before the high court ruled.

California, the nation’s largest state and one of its most diverse, has received the most attention.

Shortly after affirmative action ended in California in 1998, state universities began guaranteeing admission to most UC campuses to the top-performing students from most California high schools. The state university system also shifted to a more holistic admissions review process that considered students’ academic achievements “in light of the opportunities available to [them].”

And California also began spending more on recruitment. In total, the state has spent about a half-billion dollars on more comprehensive reviews and recruiting since the ban was put in place, according to an amicus brief UC filed in the Supreme Court case. “But funding for these programs has declined over time, and resource constraints limit UC’s ability to expand these programs,” according to the brief.

At the state’s most elite campuses, Berkeley and UCLA, Black and Hispanic enrollment plummeted in the first years after the ban. But Black and Hispanic enrollment fell less dramatically, and recovered more quickly, in the rest of the UC system.

Today, Black enrollment in the UC system as a whole is 4.5%, compared with a statewide population of about 5%. Hispanics are 22.5% of UC students, compared with about 40% of the statewide population.

At Berkeley, Black students were 3.6% of new undergraduates last fall, while Hispanic students were 21%. At UCLA, 8% percent of new undergraduates were Black, while 22% were Hispanic.

“California has not identified a silver bullet that maintains racial diversity at the same level as race-based affirmative action,” said Zachary Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University, who has extensively studied California’s experience.

Bleemer estimates that California’s automatic admission program and its more holistic review process “tend to increase Black and Hispanic enrollment by about a third of what race-based affirmative action would be.”

He added that while states with less-selective schools, such as Oklahoma and Nebraska, have reported that ending affirmative action didn’t have much of an effect on minority enrollment, that’s because “most students were getting in already.”

The Supreme Court ruling will have the greatest impact at “quite selective schools with robust affirmative action programs,” Bleemer said, citing schools such as the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, Georgia Tech and the Ohio State University.

Like California, some other states, such as Texas and Florida, have implemented automatic admission programs for top-performing students.

Texas implemented its Top 10% Plan after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996 banned affirmative action in college admissions in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In 2003, the Supreme Court nullified that decision, freeing Texas universities to consider race again. But Texas kept its plan in place.

The idea behind the plan is that since many Texas high schools are mostly Black or Hispanic, offering automatic admission to many state universities for the top 10% of students from every Texas high school would boost diversity at those schools.

But a 2020 working paper examining 18 years of data from Texas found that the program “did not result in meaningful changes” in which high schools in the state sent students to the flagship state universities, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. As a result, it had little impact on the racial diversity of the two schools.

“The purported high school representation benefits of the policy appear to be overstated and may not go as far as advocates might have hoped in terms of generating equity of access to the flagship campuses in the state,” the paper concluded.

In 2020, the student population at UT-Austin was 24.2% Hispanic, compared with 40% of the state population. The Black student percentage was 5.3%, compared with a Black state population of 13.4%.

Florida’s Talented Twenty program, launched in 1999, grants automatic admission to one of a dozen state institutions to students who graduate in the top 20% of their class, regardless of SAT or ACT scores. The data on the success of the program is mixed.

From 1999 to 2007, the share of Black freshmen at the University of Florida increased from 11% to 14%, and the overall percentage of Black undergraduates increased from 7% to 10%. But at Florida State University, the percentage of Black students declined from 11% to 9%, and it dropped from 13% to 12% at the University of South Florida, according to statistics cited recently by the Tampa Bay Times.

In 1999, Hispanics made up 16% of public high school seniors and 14% of university freshmen. In 2008, those numbers were 22% and 18%, respectively.

But in past decades, Black and Hispanic students have become increasingly underrepresented at state universities.

In the spring of 2021, 20% of seniors in Florida public high schools were Black. That fall, they made up 10% of freshmen at Florida’s 12 public universities. From 2010 to 2021, the share of Black freshmen at the University of Florida fell from 9% to under 5%. The percentage fell from 11.5% to 7.2% at the University of South Florida, the Times said.

Michigan voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting state colleges and universities from granting “preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin.” In an amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court case, the University of Michigan said that since then it has “discontinued even the limited consideration of race in holistic admissions programs.”

Instead, the university has employed what it described as “persistent, vigorous, and varied efforts to increase student-body racial and ethnic diversity by race-neutral means” — with limited success.

Michigan did not pursue a percentage plan like California, Florida and Texas; except for the Detroit area, there are relatively few majority-minority schools in the state. But it did continue to give a leg up to applicants from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and those who were the first in their family to go to college. It also bolstered recruiting and outreach by, among other things, hosting workshops for high-school counselors, maintaining a recruiting office in Detroit and coordinating campus visits.

Before the ban took effect, underrepresented minorities were about 13% of Michigan undergraduates. That percentage declined to less than 11% in 2014. The current share is about 13.5%, slightly above the pre-ban percentage. However, it is a different story for specific groups, including African Americans.

Black enrollment has declined from 7% in 2006 to roughly 4% in 2021, a reduction of 44%. During the same period, the total percentage of college-aged Black people in Michigan increased from 16% to 19%. And Native American enrollment is down by 90%, according to the university.

“The University’s persistent efforts have not been sufficient to create the racial diversity necessary to provide significant opportunities for personal interaction to dispel stereotypes and to ensure that minority students do not feel isolated or that they must act as spokespersons for their race,” the brief stated.

While affirmative action opponents are cheering last week’s ruling, advocates are now focused on how to boost minority enrollment without it.

Jessie Ryan, executive vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy group that aims to give all Californians the opportunity to go to college, said the focus must now be on high school preparation for higher learning.

“We will continue to advocate for scaling high-impact practices that result in greater racial equity,” she said in an email, including access to college preparation curriculum, universal completion of financial aid forms, and test-optional admissions policies.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the list of states that have implemented automatic admission programs for top-performing high school students. 

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

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