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April 1, 1998

California's Elite Public Colleges Report Big Drop in Minority Enrollment



  • The Freshman Class, 2002?
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  • Education: The Battle Over Affirmative Action 

    BERKELEY, Calif. -- In a demonstration of the impact of California's referendum that banned the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions, the state's most competitive public universities on Tuesday announced steep drops in admissions of black and Hispanic applicants for next fall's freshman class.

    At the University of California at Berkeley, the most selective public university in the country, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and American Indians together made up 10.4 percent of the total pool of admitted freshmen for 1998. In 1997 they made up 23.1 percent. At the University of California at Los Angeles, minority representation fell to 12.7 percent, from 19.8 percent last year.

    "My own personal emotions are a mixture of disappointment, anger, frustration, hope and resolve," said a grim-faced Robert Berdahl, Berkeley's chancellor, at a news conference on Tuesday. "To the extent this leaves us a less diverse campus, it diminishes us."

    Some opponents of affirmative action, or race-based admissions tools, said they, too, were disturbed by the drop-off but only because they said it proved their point that the school systems have been failing to prepare black and Hispanic applicants properly and that the university system had been discriminating against whites and Asians.

    "We shouldn't become obsessed with the year to year numbers," said Terence Pell, senior counsel of the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which has brought many cases against affirmative action to courts around the country.

    "It is clear it will take a few year for the systems to adjust. Diversity is important. The challenge is how to get it without focusing on skin color."

    The figures are among the first on admissions to California state universities since Proposition 209 was passed in November 1996. The referendum, which for undergraduate admissions went into effect this year, made California the only state to ban the consideration of race, ethnicity and sex in the public sector.

    But a federal appeals court has banned the state universities of Texas from doing the same, and other states, notably Michigan, are facing similar legal challenges. To avoid a large dropoff in minority admissions, the Texas legislature required the top 10 percent of graduating seniors from each school to be admitted.

    While the California referendum also barred the consideration of sex, admissions officials said they had never taken sex into account anyway because of the large number of women applying to college.

    The data released on Tuesday mirror similar drops in most of the smaller University of California campuses announced two weeks ago and at the state's business and law schools.

    It is still unclear what percentage of next year's freshman classes will consist of minorities, because the applicants have yet to choose where they will go and many will probably be able to go to the smaller state campuses.

    The two campuses that are known to be least selective, Riverside and Santa Cruz, reported increases in minority admissions. Moreover, the very top candidates may choose private institutions like Harvard and Stanford, where many may have also been admitted.

    The percentage of Asian-Americans, who are not considered under-represented minorities in California, increased slightly. Asians account for 38.3 percent of freshman admissions at Berkeley this year, up from 35.5 percent last year. At UCLA they account for 33 percent, a 0.8 percent increase from last year.

    Berdahl, the Berkeley chancellor, and Albert Carnesale, UCLA chancellor, both said at separate news conferences on Tuesday that they would try to persuade the minority members admitted to attend their universities and not leave the system or the state for other institutions.

    They said they were concerned that the number of students attending would fall further from those admitted because those minority members offered a slot at these campuses are the very top performing students sought after by colleges everywhere. Both chancellors said they fear a chilling effect on the attitude of future high school seniors toward California's best state campuses.

    "Now the challenge before us is, despite this drop in admission in underrepresented minorities, to get the highest possible enrollment so we can maintain the diversity of this campus," Carnesale said. "This is the academically strongest class in UCLA history. We received more applications than any university in the United States and probably more than any in the world."

    Together, Berkeley and UCLA account for nearly 46,000 of some 129,000 undergraduates spread across nine campuses. As the desirability of the two schools has increased, they have been able to choose from among the very top students. Now, as applications from all racial groups are increasing, there is concern that blacks and Mexican-American faces will disappear from the two key campuses and increase at the less desirable ones.

    In anticipation of a sharp drop-off in minority admissions, Berkeley officials said they overhauled their admission procedure, relying less on grade point averages and scores on standardized tests like the SAT and more on essays and a mix of criteria like whether the applicant had overcome difficult barriers.

    Some officials said they had postulated that by taking into account other factors, like individuality, as well as low socio-economic status, the number of black and Hispanic students would remain high. But Bob Laird, director of undergraduate admissions at Berkeley, said that a large number of low-income whites and Asians also overcame such barriers so it did not especially benefit minorities.

    The same is true at UCLA, where such an admission system has been in place for 15 years, according to Jeffrey Hirsch, director of university relations there.

    "The fact is that lots of the blacks we admit are middle class, second and third-generation in college while many of the Asian-Americans are poor," he said.

    At Berkeley, the mood at the lush campus, covered in budding sycamore trees, seemed a mix of resignation and anger.

    "It sends a strong message that this school is going to cater to a certain population and not open itself to the diverse population that is out there," said Marisa Galvan, a senior who is Mexican-American. "Eliminating affirmative action didn't solve any problems. It only created new ones."

    Some students and professors suggested that the university consider breaking the law to maintain its diversity.

    Across the country, where the California situation is being carefully watched, supporters of affirmative action for minority groups said they were not surprised by the numbers or by the fact that socio-economic status is not a substitute for race. They did express depression and fury.

    "We are seeing these campuses returning to a race-exclusive status," said Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "This shows that economics will not substitute for race. We know that the great majority of poor are white. You know, it is pretty depressing when you think that this is 30 years, almost to the day, after the assassination of Martin Luther King and we're still fighting a battle we thought we had moved beyond."

    High school seniors affected by the new system had varying reactions to the new numbers. Most had not yet received their letters from either UCLA or Berkeley and so did not yet know where they stood, but were worried.

    In Castlemont High School in East Oakland, Charles Jones, 18, an African-American and student body president, said he was frustrated because he felt he had gotten all he could out of high school, taking all of the three advanced placement courses offered by the school, earning a grade point average of 3.67 out of a possible 4.0 and SATs of 1100.

    He said there is often a shortage of books and other resources there. He was waiting nervously to hear from both Berkeley and UCLA and had already been disappointed by rejection from University of California at Santa Barbara.

    "The UC schools need to take into account what it is like going to school here," he said. "Because of my family situation, I spend a lot of time baby-sitting. Kids at other schools are doing the extracurricular activities that help them get into college."

    A classmate, Gabriel Escobar, 18, a Mexican-American, said he had already been accepted to the University of California at Davis and Santa Barbara but was waiting to hear from Berkeley.

    "Since I was a little kid I've wanted to go to Berkeley," he said. "With affirmative action gone, part of me wishes I was born a little earlier. There are people with much worse grades who got in last year. But it's going to be harder for me. Still, it doesn't bother me. I just have to work harder."

    One Los Angeles high school senior, Maria Prado, has been accepted by Santa Barbara but rejected by San Diego and UCLA.

    "I think that taking away affirmative action has hurt me in a way," she said. "But in a way, I think it is better because they don't emphasize who you are but what you can do."

    At San Francisco's Abraham Lincoln High school, Amy Cheung, 17, said she was waiting to hear from UCLA and Berkeley and, like many Americans, had mixed feelings about affirmative action.

    'I don't think it's fair to look at people as a whole group," she said. "Looking at them as a race and giving them benefits because of that race doesn't make any sense. But I don't want to go into a classroom where everyone is Asian. What I like about living in California is that you get to know different types of people. That's the one thing that's good about Americas."

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