Over the past few weeks, the court case SFFA v. Harvard has dominated national headlines and forced the issue of admissions-based affirmative action back into the spotlight. The plaintiff in the case is Students for Fair Admissions, a coalition of Asian-American students organized by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum.
SFFA’s lawsuit alleges that Harvard’s policy of race-based admissions decisions has unfairly discriminated against Asian-American students, and the group demands that Harvard (and all universities) no longer consider race in their admissions processes. The case, which is predicted to eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, is widely expected to determine the future of affirmative action at universities.
At UCSB, the university’s policy in regards to race-based admissions falls in line with that of the University of California as a whole. While federal law dictates that schools are allowed to use race as a factor when making admissions decisions, the UC system is currently unable to formally practice affirmative action because it must follow Proposition 209, a California state law. Proposition 209 forbids institutions in California from considering race, ethnicity, or gender in public education, amongst other sectors.
When the law was first enacted in 1998, African-American and Latinx enrollment plunged at UC schools, particularly at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two flagship schools of the UC system. However, over the past few years African-American and Latinx enrollment has reached pre-Prop 209 levels, helped in large part by aggressive efforts to boost outreach at low-income schools in California, which are primarily populated by African-American and Latinx students.
Yet, UC schools are still struggling to find a way to effectively increase diversity across campuses while still ostensibly refraining from making admissions decisions based on students’ race or gender.
The University of California was founded primarily to serve California residents, and even 50 years later, this should be one of its main priorities. UC schools have a duty to ensure that minorities are represented across all of the UC’s nine campuses, and currently, more than half of all graduated high school seniors in California are Latinx or African-American.
But during the last state review (admittedly conducted in 2008) only six percent of African-American and seven percent of Latinx students were eligible for UC admission based on test scores, completion of college-prep courses, and GPA.
Over the past two decades, the UC system has spent almost half a billion dollars on efforts to diversify its student body through race-blind programs, which range from educational outreach to training at low-income schools.
In spite of the extensive (and much needed) work that the UC system has been doing in low-income schools, there is no way to guarantee that racial diversity is being achieved through these methods.
UC President Janet Napolitano has previously stated that the UC system’s inability to practice affirmative action in the open “has made it impossible to create a student body with an appropriate ethnic and racial balance.” The UC system has lobbied to repeal Proposition 209, with little success.
But the situation has been complicated by the fact that in the two decades since Proposition 209 was signed into law, another demographic that has begun to thrive at UC schools: international students. In fall 2018, the majority of international students admitted to UC Berkeley were from China — 2,448 students in total. For comparison, India (the second most popular country of origin for international students) had only 631 admits.
Chinese international students boast extremely impressive academic achievements, and pay an almost unfathomable amount of tuition. In their own way, they also bring a much-needed boost of diversity to campus.
These are the people, SFFA argues, that are most negatively impacted when universities choose to consider race in admissions decisions — people who consistently demonstrate high academic achievement, but risk being rejected in favor of minority students with more average statistics.
But it’s important to realize that affirmative action isn’t meant to discriminate against those with high test scores, it’s meant to allow individuals of all different ethnicities to have an equal opportunity to study at world-class institutions. Asians and Asian-American students are not the enemy of African-American and Latinx students. The only real enemy students have to face is the systematic racial inequality that has plagued the United States for decades.
The UC system has to strike a balance between catering to California residents and upholding its reputation as the best public school system in the world, and practicing affirmative action guarantees that every high school student has the same chance at admission.
In an ideal world, every university would be equally diverse, while still servicing the brightest minds possible. Unfortunately, the long history of socioeconomic inequality in the US means that this goal is currently not feasible. However, instituting a formalized system of affirmative action brings the UC system one step closer to making this dream a reality.