The Corner

Education

Is California Backsliding on Racial Preferences?

Sather Tower rises above the University of California at Berkeley. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Racial preferences are never quite dead, no matter how many times you put a stake through them.

Overturning Prop. 209, which bans racial preferences in public employment, public contracting, and admissions at California’s state university system has long been one of the goals of proponents of race-conscious admissions.

On May 5, those who want to reinstate racial preferences in California admissions moved a step closer to doing so. They must be defeated.

ACA 5 would repeal Prop. 209 and place the measure on the November ballot for ratification by California voters. Last week, the Committee on Public Employment and Retirement approved ACA 5 (6-1) and re-referred it to the Committee on Appropriations.

ACA 5 states:

Since the passage of Proposition 209, diversity within public educational institutions has been stymied. Proposition 209 instigated a dramatic change in admissions policy at the University of California, with underrepresented group enrollment at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California immediately falling by more than 60 percent and systemwide underrepresented group enrollment falling by at least 12 percent.

Note carefully what the bill says — “underrepresented group enrollment” (i.e., black and Hispanic) at Berkeley and UCLA declined, and systemwide underrepresented group enrollment fell by at least 12 percent. It’s not that black and Hispanic students are unable to get into universities at all without racial preferences. It’s that an “insufficient” number, in the view of progressives and race-hustlers, are unable to get into the most elite universities without racial preferences. That’s why the bill mentions Berkeley and UCLA and refers to “systemwide,” by which the bill’s authors mean the University of California system. This doesn’t mean that black and Hispanic students aren’t attending universities, nor that they’re unable to attend state universities. It means that proportionally fewer black and Hispanic students than Asian and white students are academically qualified to attend schools such as Berkeley and UCLA. Rather, their academic qualifications are better suited to attending other universities in the University of California system, such as UC-Davis and UC-Riverside. At UC-Riverside, for example, 41.5 percent of the undergraduate student population is Hispanic. At UC-Davis, 23 percent of the undergraduate student population is Hispanic.

Furthermore, if a student isn’t academically qualified for the University of California system, he still may be able to attend a university in the California State University system. Hispanics comprise the largest racial/ethnic group in the CSU system, accounting for 43 percent of enrolled students. African-Americans, alas, are underrepresented in both the UC and CSU systems, accounting for a mere 4 percent of enrolled undergraduates in both systems (more on that in a later post).

As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. illustrate in their book Mismatch, students whose academic qualifications place them in the bottom third of their class at the most elite schools (an SAT math score of 581) are in the middle third of their class at schools that are moderately elite, and at the top of their class at non-elite schools.

Why is this important? Because students who are academically weak compared with their classmates are unlikely to learn as much or do as well in college as they otherwise would have. When most of your classmates are better prepared academically, you’ll be expected to learn material faster just to keep pace. On day one, you’ll probably have to learn new concepts with which your classmates are already familiar. On the other hand, if you’re in a class where your academic preparation matches the median student, or is even above the median, you’ll be much better positioned to succeed. In other words, giving preferences to students who are succeeding at UC-Riverside or Cal-State Fullerton in order to send them to Berkeley or UCLA is doing them no favors. As Sander and Taylor wrote in Mismatch, discussing a study by Frederick Smyth and John McArdle, “students with stronger high school records were more likely to go into the sciences and more likely to graduate with science degrees.” However, students interested in STEM who were academically weaker than their classmates were more likely to quit STEM. In fact, “had all the black and Hispanic students in their sample enrolled at schools where their credentials were close to the class-wide averages, 45 percent more of the women minorities and 35 percent more of the men minorities would have completed STEM degrees.” (Emphasis added.)

This discussion of the mismatch effect, of course, doesn’t even begin to address the unfairness to Asian and white students who are denied a place at their preferred school despite their stronger academic record. This is merely to point out that racial preferences in education don’t even help the purported beneficiaries, and indeed, probably harm a good number of them.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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