Education After Affirmative Action

California's students have benefited from end of racial preferences

Like California exactly 10 years ago, Michigan will vote Nov. 7 on a ballot initiative to ban racial preferences in government. Opponents fear the ban will diminish educational opportunities for blacks and Hispanics, leading to lily-white campuses, especially at the University of Michigan — the UC Berkeley of the Midwest.

But that is not the lesson of Prop 209 — the California initiative that ended racial preferences in government employment, education and contracting. In fact, a close look at data from the University of California system reveals a multi-hued picture in which all groups, on balance, have benefited in unintended and unexpected ways.

It is true that after Prop 209 went into effect, as opponents had predicted, black and Hispanic populations at California’s two most elite universities — Berkeley and UCLA — dropped by nearly half and have never fully recovered. According to admissions data, between 1995 and 2004, black admissions to Berkeley dropped from 6.66 percent to 3.59 percent and Hispanics from 17 to 10.22 percent. UCLA reported similar drops.

Yet, despite these drops, the overall population of minority students across the University of California system has remained remarkably stable. This is because post-Prop 209, black and Hispanic students didn’t give up on a higher education – they simply entered colleges for which they were more qualified. Indeed, schools such as UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz have seen minority enrollments increase, with Riverside alone reporting a 240 percent increase in black admissions.

In effect, notes Rick Sander, a UCLA law professor who has studied affirmative action in higher education, Prop 209 led to massive reapportionment of students. “This has produced better students all around,” he notes.

Four-year graduation rates for blacks at UC San Diego, for example, doubled from 26 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2001 — nearly on par with whites and Asians. Similarly, Mexican-American graduation rates are up from 27 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2001.

But Prop 209 has not only improved minority performance at colleges but also in high schools. Unable to rely on preferences to recruit minorities, universities have redoubled their efforts to prepare low-income students in school districts with low college participation rates, notes Eryn Hadley in the Brigham Young University Journal of Public Law. Among other things, they have started partnering with these schools to develop courses that better prepare students for college.

The upshot? Minority high-school graduation rates have risen post-Prop 209, reports Hadley.

But what about the spots vacated by blacks and Hispanics at the elite universities? At Berkeley , it turns out most have gone to Asians, whose enrollment has risen from 38 percent in 1995 to about 46 percent in 2004. At UCLA, they have been split between whites and Asians.

In both schools Asians represent more than 40 percent of the student population — even though they are only 12 percent of the state’s general population. This means California ‘s elite colleges are the first among their national peers, thanks to Prop 209, to treat Asians fairly — and not like the “new Jews.”

Asians applying to elite schools don’t benefit from minority preferences — because they are not regarded as under-represented. At the same time, The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Golden recently documented that since Asians are often first-generation immigrants, they don’t qualify for legacy preferences either. The result is they lose out both to less qualified black and white students. They need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians on standardized tests just to be in the game.

Nor should this come as a surprise given that the admissions process in elite colleges has its genesis in the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. As Jerome Karabel wrote in the book “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” that’s when Harvard, Yale and Princeton changed their admissions criteria, relying less on academic merit as measured by test scores and more on “character” traits as judged through recommendation letters and student essays in a naked attempt to diminish the number of Jews on campus. Now that system works against Asians.

It is likely that if Michigan follows California and Washington state in banning racial preferences next Tuesday, it will ignite a nation-wide trend. California ‘s experience suggests that this prospect should not be greeted with dread — but optimism. Exactly what adjustments race-neutral policies might trigger will depend, among other things, on the demographics of each state. Michigan, for instance, can confidently expect: black and Hispanic graduation rates — currently lagging 17 percent behind whites and Asians — to catch up; Asian student population at the University of Michigan to increase along with that of Arab-Americans given that Michigan is home to the biggest Arab-American population outside the Mid-East; and K-12 education might well improve for many low-income students.

As 10 years of California experience shows ending racial preferences will lead to a more just system that will produce what economists call “pareto-optimal outcomes” where all groups are better off — and none worse off.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a free market think tank. Henry Payne is a freelance writer and an editorial cartoonist at the Detroit News. An archive of Dalmia’s work is here and Reason’s education research and commentary is here.