For 13 years, University of California officials have wrestled with a seemingly insoluble problem: how to sustain a student body that reflects the state's vast diversity without violating Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure banning race-based affirmative action.
The latest attempt to formulate a policy that is both legal and capable of increasing diversity is a controversial new admissions mandate that will take effect in fall 2012. A slow-brewed product of the UC Academic Senate's Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), the plan would give more high school students a shot at getting admitted to a UC school, but guarantee fewer of them spots.
Currently, the top 12.5% of high school seniors in the state are guaranteed admission to a UC school -- something originally set out in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education. More recently, the top 4% of students at all schools in the state have been assured a spot. Under the new guidelines, only the top 9% statewide are guaranteed spots, as well as the top 9% at every high school. The theory is that this will guarantee more spots for students at underperforming high schools where opportunities are not as great and more of the students are underrepresented minorities.
The new rules also will create a larger pool of students entitled to be considered for -- but not guaranteed -- admission. To be considered, applicants must still take required college prep courses, have a 3.0 grade-point average and take the basic SAT exam. But they will no longer be required to also take SAT subject tests, something the plan's designers hope will benefit black and Latino students, who are less likely to take the exams.
But as is always the case when admissions policies change, there will be winners and losers. The plan's critics say it is unlikely to bring in more black and Latino students and that white applicants will be the biggest beneficiaries. More important, they allege, it will slash the UC eligibility of Asian American students, who benefit by the current larger guarantee of placement for top students statewide.
Sacramento's 10-member Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus has proclaimed the plan to be outright discrimination against Asian Pacific Islanders. And many Asian Americans see the move as directly aimed at bringing down their numbers in California's universities.
Since Proposition 209 passed, the percentage of Asian American students at UC schools has soared. Currently, Berkeley's undergraduate enrollment is 42% Asian American. The caucus cites documents from the UC president's office suggesting that had the new guidelines been in effect in the 2007-08 school year, the share of Asian American students would have dropped dramatically while Anglo admissions would have risen. The rise in Latino and African American admissions would have been quite small, only about 1 percentage point each.
UC officials insist the issue has been over-politicized. UC Davis engineering professor Mark Rashid, who headed BOARS, says the Asian American opponents are experiencing "a failure to understand," that as the size of the eligibility pool increases, the number of eligible Asian Americans will increase too. Retired sociology professor Richard Flacks, a member of the committee that drafted the plan, insisted that the policies would reach "the half of California high schools who rarely send students into the UC system."
But many are unconvinced. "I like to call it affirmative action for whites," Ling-chi Wang, retired UC Berkeley professor of ethnic and Asian studies, told me.
The Asian Pacific Islander caucus asked the UC regents to postpone their February vote, saying that a proposal with the potential to negatively affect the state's third-largest ethnic group (Asian Americans make up 12% of California's population) needed further study.
And Steve Boilard of the state Legislative Analyst's Office questioned "why UC is pursuing these changes at this time," noting that the enlarged eligibility pool represented a marked departure from the Master Plan for Higher Education. "We think [such a] significant change should be based on a careful consideration of the consequences."
But the regents forged ahead, approving the guidelines with a single abstention. Since then, there have been demonstrations, and the Asian American Legal Foundation has threatened litigation.
It can't be known at this point precisely what effect the policy change will eventually have. But whatever its effects, critics have a point: Such a dramatic change to UC admissions policy -- and to the Master Plan for Higher Education -- deserved a fuller public airing. Proposition 209 has tied the hands of supporters of diversity in admissions to the state's schools. But attempts to find other ways to increase diversity may have unintended consequences.
Critics wonder whether now is a good time to change the admissions policy in a way that is likely to significantly increase the number of applications to UC campuses -- and therefore the number of employees necessary to review them -- at a time of dwindling resources. Also, in a time of record college applications, most UC campuses are enrolled to capacity. Already, UCLA and Berkeley reject thousands of highly qualified freshman candidates annually. And UC officials mandated further, emergency enrollment cuts of 2,300 (out of 36,000 admissions) for the coming class year. Assuming the recession doesn't vanish by 2012, critics say, the only certain consequence of the new admissions plan would be an increased number of disappointed freshman rejects.
The goal of having UC campuses that reflect the state's diversity is a good one. And there's no doubt that Proposition 209 has made that more difficult. But California must take care to not have the gains of one ethnic group come at the expense of another.
The real answer won't come from tinkering yet again with admissions policies. In the absence of better secondary education, rule changes can only amount to what economists call "pushing on a string." Even in these dark budgetary times, the only long-term answer is for all students in the state to have access to the kind of elementary and secondary education that prepares them for admission to the state's best universities. Only then will the state's institutions of higher learning be able to fulfill their true mission.