Why reopen the affirmative action debate, when the current system is working for everyone?
The Wall Street Journal January 22, 2018
For 40 years, the debate over “affirmative action” in college admissions has seemed to play on loop. Each side airs the same arguments over and over, with the same passion. Yet there is ample evidence that what actually works to move disadvantaged students up the socioeconomic ladder is the colorblind admissions system in California’s public universities.
The affirmative-action debate ignited with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The justices ruled that explicit quotas—setting aside a certain number of seats for students of different races—were unconstitutional, but they allowed schools to take race into account as one factor in admissions. (I co-wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on Allan Bakke’s side when the case was before the state Supreme Court.)
In 1996 voters approved Proposition 209, an amendment to the California Constitution: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.” Because of Proposition 209, California’s public universities have used colorblind admissions for two decades, although they actively consider applicants’ socioeconomic status.
The results have been a stunning success. Last year the Equality of Opportunity Project conducted a nationwide longitudinal study to find which colleges were doing the most to help poor students succeed. Of the top 10 ranked, five were California public schools. Among America’s elite colleges, the University of California, Los Angeles, enrolled the highest share of low- and middle-income students (19%). In the University of California system, 43% of the freshman class admitted in 2016 were the first in their families to attend college, and 37% had family incomes under $47,200 a year.
This colorblind admission system nonetheless produces college classrooms that are a fairly accurate cross-section of California’s racial and ethnic diversity. In 2017 admitted freshmen throughout the UC system were 34% Asian, 33% Latino, 24% white and 5% African-American. In the Cal State system, the figures were 47% Latino, 20% white, 16% Asian and Filipino, and 4% African-American.
For comparison, California’s high-school seniors are 52% Latino, 24% white, 11% Asian and Filipino, and 6% African-American. And of course not all seniors qualify for admission to a university, let alone the UC system.
These figures for minority admissions in the UC schools exceed many of the targets they had set before Proposition 209. Since 1996, Latinos as a share of enrollment have grown from 14% to 33%, Asians from 28% to 34%, and African-Americans from 4% to 5%. Whites have declined from 41% to 24%.
This diversity has been achieved while maintaining the quality of California’s public universities. The latest college rankings from U.S. News & World Report list UCLA and UC Berkeley as tied for the top public school in the country. Four other UCs (Santa Barbara, Irvine, San Diego and Davis) are among the top dozen.
These results should be heralded far and wide, but there is an almost willful resistance to examining the data. In the California Legislature, the Latino and black legislative caucuses sent a letter to 2018 gubernatorial candidates asking them to say whether they think race should again be considered in college admissions—a result that could be achieved only by repealing Proposition 209. Three of the leading candidates endorsed the idea.
A campaign to reinstate affirmative action would inject an incendiary racial element into this year’s election. Other than riling up the caucuses’ political bases, there is no compelling argument for seeking to resurrect racial and ethnic preferences. The push is guaranteed to split the Democratic Party—not to mention the public—and generate a needless and divisive debate. Today’s colorblind system is working well for all Californians—rich and poor, minority and white—and is a model for the rest of the country.