How could America’s colleges and universities be changed by a Supreme Court ruling that ends race-based admissions? Data from the California and Michigan state university systems paint a troubling picture.
Both were forced to stop thinking about race after voters called for a nationwide ban. That has led to a sharp decline in campus diversity, senior officials at the schools said in court filings in support of Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Those records contradict statements made Monday by Students for Fair Admissions in an argument against Harvard before the Supreme Court, in which the group’s lawyers argued that the experiences of Michigan and California show how the university can achieve effective race-neutral alternatives. In fact, both schools found those alternatives lacking, officials said.
Michigan officials have compared the university to an “experiment in race-neutral admissions” and said the school’s struggle to maintain diversity underscores how limited consideration of race is necessary for colleges and universities to achieve the educational benefits that come from a diverse student body.
Even with what officials described as an “extraordinary” recruitment effort, enrollment among black and Native American students in Michigan has dropped 44 percent and 90 percent, respectively, since 2006, when race was banned. These declines occur despite admissions officers taking into account an applicant’s socioeconomic background and whether they will be the first in their family to attend college.
Michigan has been an important voice in case law regarding the constitutionality of race-conscious confessions, including Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). In that case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that securing the educational benefits of a diverse student body is a “compelling state interest” that can justify using race as one of many factors in considering each applicant holistically. That principle “still holds true today,” Michigan officials say.
Like Michigan, the University of California has implemented a wide range of race-neutral approaches to continue to attract or even increase the diversity of students on its 10 campuses after voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which outlawed race in college admissions.
While UC has had some success in expanding economic and geographic diversity among its more than 290,000 students, it has struggled to enroll a student body that is “racially diverse enough to achieve the educational benefits of diversity,” university officials wrote in their report.
Freshman enrollment of underrepresented students has fallen “precipitously” systemwide, dropping by 50 percent or more at UC’s most selective campuses, where African-American, Native American and Hispanic students are already underrepresented and widely reported to struggle with racial feelings. isolation, UC officials wrote.
After the ban, the drop was particularly dramatic at UCLA and UC Berkeley. In 1995, African Americans made up 7.13 percent of UCLA’s first-year students, but in 1998, when California’s ban went into effect, it was just 3.43 percent. At Berkeley, in 1995, 6.32 percent of students were African American, but in 1998, only 3.37 percent. Hispanic students made up 15.57 percent of Berkeley’s freshmen in 1995 and only 7.28 percent in 1998, although African American and Hispanic students made up 7.5 percent and 31 percent of the state’s public high school graduates in 1998, respectively.
Although California has become more diverse, these racial disparities remain. In 2019, 52.3 percent of California public high school seniors identified as Latino, while 24.4 percent identified as white, 13.6 percent as Asian, 5.5 percent as African American, and 0.5 percent as Indians. Still, just 25.4 percent of first-year undergraduate students at UC’s nine campuses identified as Latino, 3.87 percent as African American and 0.42 percent as Native American, according to the UC report.
California’s struggles since the late 1990s to achieve racial diversity show “that highly competitive universities may not be able to achieve the benefits of student body diversity through race-neutral measures alone,” officials said, so they “must retain” the ability to consider race in a limited way , as allowed by the Supreme Court.
“In a country where race matters, universities must maintain campus environments that allow them to teach their students to see each other as more than mere stereotypes,” the UC wrote. “Success in this endeavor is critical to preparing the next generation to become effective citizens and leaders in an increasingly diverse nation.”
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