LOS ANGELES — In California, where affirmative action on admissions has been banned at public universities since 1996, university officials and faculty say they have found ways to ensure their student bodies remain diverse.
Although the US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that race cannot be a factor in admissions, shocking the higher education community across the country, California could provide a model for how to foster diversity without infringing the law.
California colleges and universities have relied on holistic reviews of applicants, considering factors such as personal essays and whether students convert educational opportunities at their high schools into academic achievement.
Some institutions have removed the requirement for all applicants to submit standardized test scores, which tends to benefit students whose families can afford tutoring and preparatory classes.
The move away from standardized test scores is part of a broader national trend to level the playing field for students from all walks of life.
«Accounting for race was not the ultimate solution to disparities in college admissions, but it was a necessary pathway to address systemic deficiencies,» said Michael V. Drake, president of the University of California. «Without it, we must do much more work to identify and address the root causes of the social inequities that prevent diverse students from seeking and obtaining a higher education.»
California banned affirmative action in 1996 under Republican Governor Pete Wilson during an anti-immigration wave in California that included a voter-approved law that would have denied health care, education and other services to people living in the US without authorization. . That law was eventually struck down in federal court.
At the public University of California, which includes more than 290,000 students on 10 campuses, administrators have adopted alternative criteria for recruiting and evaluating students of diverse backgrounds without asking explicit questions about race.
The efforts have attracted a broad pool of talent, allowing the UC system to retain a diverse population, although it does not always reflect the demographics of the state.
Although Latinos are 40% of the state’s population, they are only 22.5% of the students enrolled in UC schools. African Americans make up 6.5% of California’s population and 5.5% of UC undergraduates.
Asian students are 16% of California’s population and 32% of the student population in the UC system.
“We haven’t done enough to repair the institutional damage done to certain communities,” said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA.
“We know that African American and Latino students are more likely to attend underfunded schools without the right number of counselors, without the same number of AP and honors courses,” he continued, referring to Advanced Placement courses. «There are structural drawbacks that have been in place for decades, if not longer, and we can’t just say ‘let’s act like the last 100 years didn’t happen’ when it did.»
At Pomona College, a private university in Southern California, admissions officials have relied heavily on affirmative action in the 27 years since California banned it for state-funded institutions. The elite liberal arts college, with an enrollment of 1,747 students, combines outreach, recruiting, and academic review to screen prospective students.
Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr said her office is «still digesting feedback to see what the ins and outs are» but that she anticipates increasing recruiting efforts at the high school level.
«Nothing in the ruling will change the way we recruit,» he said. “Our initial plans will include making sure we are as broad as possible in the locations where we will meet with students and counselors from across the country.”
Even so, Pomona College’s student population does not fully reflect the diversity of Los Angeles County, where Latinos make up 49% of the total population but only 18% of students there.
Asian and Black students, who make up 17% and 13.6% of the student population, respectively, are better represented compared to their share of the total population, at 16% and 9%, respectively.
Moving forward, Starr hopes the university will focus more on strong recruitment of students from all walks of life, including outreach efforts in communities and high schools unfamiliar with the small institution, and those who think that attending a private school is out of reach.
“My concern right now is that with the level of inequality in America’s high schools, there just aren’t enough counselors for families and students to understand what’s possible,” he said.