Jae C. Hong/AP
For decades, the question of affirmative action—whether colleges should consider race when deciding which students to admit—has been the subject of national debate.
And as the nation’s highest court has become more conservative in recent years, court observers wondered whether it would overturn decades-old precedents by allowing affirmative action.
It happened this week: The Supreme Court struck down race-based admissions practices at public and private universities and colleges.
Supreme Court justices ruled that the admissions policies of the University of North Carolina, one of the oldest public universities in the country, and Harvard University, the oldest private university in the country, violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
As college admissions offices prepare to adjust their policies to the Supreme Court’s ruling, California offers lessons on what may be in store for the rest of the country.
Here’s the take: A quarter-century after California banned race-based admissions to public universities, school officials say they haven’t been able to meet their diversity and equity goals, despite more than half a billion dollars spent for awareness and alternative admission standards.
In a short friend Sent to the Supreme Court in support of Harvard and UNC’s race-based admissions programs, the clerks at the University of California said years of crafting alternative race-neutral policies have fallen short.
“These programs have enabled UC to make significant gains in its system-wide diversity,” the brief states. « However, despite its great efforts, UC struggles to enroll a sufficiently racially diverse student body to reap the educational benefits of diversity. »
The deficit is particularly evident in the system’s most selective schools, university leaders said.
An affirmative action ban first caused a huge decline in diversity at top California colleges
In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ban on affirmative action at public universities in the state. Before the ban, UC Berkeley and UCLA were roughly representative of the population of California high school graduates who could apply to colleges, according to Zachary Bleemer, an economist at Princeton University.
The ban first went into effect with the arrival of the Class of ’98. Subsequently, diversity plummeted at UC’s most competitive campuses. That year, enrollment between black and Latino students at UCLA and UC Berkeley decreased by 40%according to A Study 2020 by Blemer. As a result of the ban, Bleemer found that black and Latino students who could have gotten into those two top schools were enrolling on less competitive campuses.
« Black and Hispanic students have seen substantially poorer long-term job market prospects due to the loss of access to these very selective colleges, » Bleemer told NPR. « But there has been no proportional gain in long-term outcomes for the white and Asian students who have taken their places. »
Black and Latino students were also less likely to earn degrees or enter lucrative STEM fields.
“If you follow them into the job market, over the next 15 to 20 years, they will earn wages about 5 percent lower than they would have earned if they had access to more selective colleges in the event of affirmative action,” Bleemer said.
The ban has indeed acted as a deterrent to prospective Black and Latino students, Bleemer said. Her study found that high-achieving minority students were subsequently discouraged from applying to schools where minority students were underrepresented.
« Most don’t want to go to a college where there isn’t a critical mass of racial peers, » said Mitchell Chang, associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. That’s because attending a school made less diverse by a ban on affirmative action « puts them at greater risk of being stereotyped and being isolated, » he said.
These findings « provide the first causal evidence that banning affirmative action exacerbates socioeconomic inequalities, » Bleemer’s study says.
A learning curve
Faced with plummeting minority enrollments, admissions offices began a years-long effort to find ways to restore their numbers.
Admissions offices have moved towards a more holistic approach, looking beyond grades and test scores. Starting in the early 2000s, the UC implemented a couple of initiatives to increase diversity: High-achieving students who graduated from most high schools in the state were guaranteed admission to most of UC’s eight college campuses. He also introduced a complete revision process for « evaluating students’ academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to them » – using a variety of criteria including a student’s special abilities and achievements, special circumstances, and high school location.
In 2020, the UC system eliminated standardized test scores as an admissions requirement, negating a factor that proponents say disadvantages less well-off students.
However, the effort to increase diversity has come at a steep price. Since Prop 209 went into effect, UC has spent more than half a billion dollars on outreach programs and application reviews to attract a more diverse student body.
It took 25 years of experimentation through race-neutral policies for UC schools to begin to recover the racial diversity numbers lost in the wake of the affirmative action ban, says UCLA Vice Chancellor Chang.
« There was no magic wand. Some things worked out better than others. And that, too, is a job that doesn’t happen overnight, » Chang said.
However, California schools are falling short of their system-wide diversity goals. Chang says her school isn’t where she wants to be. She still enrolls far fewer black and Latino students than their share of California high school graduates, an issue she didn’t have before the affirmative action ban.
As with the UC system, experts believe that across the country, equally competitive universities will be hardest hit by the Supreme Court ruling.
Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College, a small Southern California school that was not under the state ban, fears the private, selective college will lose its racial diversity under the nationwide affirmative action ban.
Starr says being able to consider race has allowed her school to ensure its ability to bring together a diverse classroom.
« Having a campus that looks like the world our students are going to live in is really important just like a core value, » she said.
NPR’s Adrian Florido contributed to this report.