The Supreme Court of America, on Thursday, dismissed affirmative action policies in colleges, ruling that the race-conscious admission policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unlawful.
As a result of the court’s decision, colleges across the country will have to revise their admission policies, including private universities in California, which have the autonomy to consider race in admissions.
Berkley Side is republishing this advisory story that first emerged in October 2022, when the University of California filed a petition in the Supreme Court to continue using race-conscious admission policies in other states. Since the ban on affirmative action by voters in 1996, affirmative action has become illegal for public colleges and universities in California.
Officials at the University of California have requested permission from the court to allow race-conscious admission policies.
Officials and supporters of the college argue that the evidence of their necessity lies in a series of unsuccessful attempts by UC to increase diversity without affirmative action. Their latest effort to eliminate standardized testing scores as a means to make admissions more equitable was a high-profile decision, but it has had limited impact on racial diversity.
In the year 1996, the electorate of California gave their approval to Proposition 209, effectively prohibiting the implementation of affirmative action in the context of college admissions.
Since then, UC has implemented several policies designed to enhance diversity, including initiatives targeting low-income students and guaranteeing admission to a greater number of students. While these policies have improved geographic diversity and increased enrollment among low-income students, UC has failed to bring about racial diversity in its student body, which is representative of the state. UC accepted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court this summer.
UC told the Supreme Court that despite its extensive efforts, UC struggles to enroll a student body diverse enough to gain the educational benefits of diversity through race-neutral means alone. “The observations gained from a decade of implementing race-blind admissions indicate that prestigious educational institutions are unable to attain the educational advantages of a diverse student body solely through race-neutral alternatives.”
Changes in the university’s latest policy, ending the use of standardized testing, may serve as the latest evidence that admissions policies aimed at removing barriers cannot achieve the level of racial diversity that affirmative action would. Critics of SAT and ACT have argued that the tests are biased in favor of white and Asian students, who have better access to test preparation, tutoring, and multiple test-taking opportunities.
In 2020, the system of admission in nine undergraduate campuses ended standardized testing, a decision that college advocates hoped would result in increased enrollment of Black and Latinx students.
However, during the autumn of 2021, which marked the initial admission cycle without mandatory SAT or ACT scores, the University of California (UC) welcomed a nearly equivalent proportion of new Black and Latinx students compared to previous autumn cycles. The UC accepted the same proportion of Black and Latinx students in 2022 as it did the previous year. Since the elimination of testing, the UC has seen a significant increase in the number of Black and Latinx applicants in the system, but there are also more White and Asian applicants.
Some UC officials say it should come as no surprise that eliminating tests has not brought about a major change in the racial composition of UC students.
Michelle Whiteingam, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management at UC Santa Cruz, said, “I think people around the state and around the world who were watching the University of California had created this perception that things have changed significantly. And it’s just not the case.”
Officials also say that the low representation of students with lower test scores is just one barrier. College counseling, advanced placement classes, and smaller class sizes have become unequal in accessibility in California and across the country.
However, others caution against drawing conclusions too quickly, as the system has only gone through two admission cycles without standardized testing, and several other factors have been at play since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, the University wrote that it is still unclear what the impact of eliminating testing will be.
I refrain from interpreting any individual data point from the past two years as a definitive conclusion.. With the effects of a global pandemic, along with all the other factors and the changes in the SAT requirement, I think it will take some time for anyone to understand it in context,” said Dell Lehman, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions at UC Irvine.
Truly, the affirmative action impact has been disheartening and far from what was anticipated.
Following Proposition 209, UC was prohibited from considering race in admissions, “enrollment of historically underrepresented minority groups quickly declined at UC,” the system wrote in a brief filed with the Supreme Court.
This held true for every campus within the UC system, with a notable emphasis on its most prestigious and competitive campuses, namely UCLA and UC Berkeley.. For example, in UCLA, the proportion of Black students in the freshman class dropped from 7.13% in 1995 to just 3.43% in 1998. During the same period, the ratio of Latinx students decreased from 21.58% to 10.45%.
There is no doubt that when Proposition 209 was passed, it had a real impact on efforts towards racial equality,” said Audrey Dove, Senior Vice President of Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization dedicated to promoting equitable opportunities for accessing universities in California.
Since Proposition 209 was approved by voters, UC has made several initiatives to increase diversity. The system has spent over half a billion dollars implementing outreach programs like outreach programs, which work directly with underrepresented high school students, helping them meet all admission requirements and apply for financial aid. However, these programs have not been as effective in enrolling a high percentage of Black and Latino students, as stated in a brief summary by the Supreme Court.
In 2001, UC introduced a regional initiative that currently ensures admission to California residents who rank within the top 9% of their high school graduating class. This program ensures that students from schools across the state have access to UC and has helped improve the system’s geographic diversity. However, like the outreach programs, the local guarantee has not resulted in sufficient growth in racial diversity of UC admissions and has had minimal impact on the most selective campuses, as stated by UC in the brief.
Additionally, in 2001, UC initiated a comprehensive review in admissions. This system shifted from primarily using grades and test scores to determine if a student was admitted using 14 factors, but now uses 13 factors with the elimination of test scores. UC now considers factors such as the student’s high school context and their achievements in light of special circumstances, such as if the student is low-income or the first in their family to attend college.
Nonetheless, in its Supreme Court filing, UC conceded that the holistic evaluation process alone “is inadequate in offsetting the decrease in diversity resulting from Proposition 209.”
California voters recently had the opportunity to reverse course and consider affirmative action for UC through Proposition 16, which would have repealed Proposition 209, but it was defeated.
Embracing a holistic approach to admissions, test scores are no longer the sole determining factor for acceptance.
According to Assistant Vice Chancellor Whitingham from UC Santa Cruz, prior to UC being granted flexibility in admissions decisions regarding standardized testing, admissions officers were already taking test scores into account “within the broader context. For example, if an applicant scored 1200 on the SAT and their score was the highest at their school, it could be more impactful for the readers of applications compared to an applicant who scored 1300 but went to a school where that score was only average.
Whitingham stated, “It’s an important piece.”
It can be understood that UC’s newly admitted cohort of 2021 did not appear significantly different from previous cohorts in terms of underrepresented groups. Approximately 4.4% of the admitted class were White students, compared to 4.1% in 2020. Latino students were also represented in a similar proportion.
The students’ participation was 26%, compared to around 25% last year, and this slight increase can be attributed at least partially to demographic changes. High school students in California.
Whitingham said that he believes there is a “possibility” of eliminating test scores, which would ultimately result in increased enrollment of Black and Latino students, but he does not expect it to be a dramatic change.
Dove from the Campaign for College Opportunity stated that removing SAT and ACT was “a big signal to students that you have a place, you’re welcome at the University of California.” Therefore, Dove said that UC saw a significant increase in applications for admissions in 2021, with a rise of nearly 18% in applications from new students, including a substantial increase in the number of applications from Black and Latino students.
However, Dove mentioned that UC did not see a transformation in the demographic patterns of admitted applicants unless it expands its capacity significantly. Dove said, “Not everyone who is qualified and capable has a seat. I think as we address the challenge of capacity, we’ll continue to move forward on removing barriers for students of color at UC.”
UC has prioritized expanding capacity and plans to enroll an additional 23,000 students by 2030. However, this could be challenging in some campuses, especially in highly competitive environments like Berkeley, where there is already overcrowding leading to thousands of students being turned away. Each year, campuses have limited housing for students.
Some UC officials are optimistic that eliminating SAT and ACT will eventually result in increased enrollment of Black and Latino students. Along with UC Irvine’s Leaman, admissions officers from UC San Diego and UCLA informed advisors that they believe there will be a higher percentage of admitted students in their campuses in the coming years. This may particularly hold true if the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic diminishes, as there is a higher likelihood that the educational plans of Black and Latino students have been affected by the pandemic.
If this happens, it would mark a departure from UC’s previous efforts that have failed to enhance racial diversity throughout the system.
In its brief to the Supreme Court on affirmative action, UC wrote that its own experience demonstrates the need for universities to consider “race as a limited factor” in admissions.
In order for universities to attain the educational advantages of diversity and foster an inclusive environment, it is crucial to take into account the unique experiences and backgrounds of young adults hailing from various walks of life, social and economic circumstances, upbringing, and race, and to establish them. Their ability to appreciate each other’s perspectives,” wrote UC.