Diversity Without Affirmative Action: Still a Worthy Goal?

Those familiar with the Supreme Court are saying that it's looking increasingly likely that affirmative action in college admissions is on its way out. The New York Times explores the ways in which states that are now looking for a different way to maintain diversity on their college campuses can emulate one of the first states not to use affirmative action at all – California.

In 1996, after the passage of Proposition 209, California became one the first states to do away with affirmative action in college admissions entirely. In the first few years after Prop 209 was adopted, the impact on minority enrollment in the University of California system was undeniable. The number of Latino students fell by 3% from 15% to 12%. The percentage of the student body that was African-American also declined by a single percentage point from 4% to 3%. At some of the most prestigious campuses in the system like Berkeley and UCLA, the declines were even steeper.

But after a few years the numbers rebounded — and then some.

Until last fall, 25 percent of new students were Latino, reflecting the booming Hispanic population, and 4 percent were black. A similar pattern of decline and recovery followed at other state universities that eliminated race as a factor in admissions.

Since considering race in admissions was no longer an option,the public university system in California – and other states where affirmative action is no longer on the books like Florida, Michigan and Washington – instead look for traits that are frequently its proxy. For example, admissions procedures on UC campuses give students points for "overcoming disadvantages" such as being from low-income families or from families where English isn't the first language. Applicants from underperforming schools also get a leg up, as well as those from crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The approach has helped maintain the level of diversity on UC campuses, but is that necessarily a good thing?

Not according to Heather Mac Donald, writing for the City Journal. Mac Donald asks if at a time when the public university system in California is claiming poverty, can it justify spending millions of its budgets to fix a problem that doesn't really exist?

UC Two captured the admissions process long ago. Ever since the passage of Proposition 209 banned racial discrimination at public institutions, UC's faculty and administrators have worked overtime to find supposedly race-neutral alternatives to outright quotas. Admissions officials now use "holistic" review to pick students, an opaque procedure designed to import proxies for race into the selection process, among other stratagems.

Nor, according to Mac Donald, is this diversity push really serving those it was designed to help the most – the students. Mac Donald cites Richard Sander's "mismatch theory," which demonstrates how admitting students who are academically unprepared to tackle the work to a school where an average student has the skills to meet the challenge merely sets them on a road to failure.

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