California’s long-standing affirmative action ban hints at what’s to come

Alternative race-neutral polices have fallen far short in encouraging diversity, research shows

A photo of an outdoor space with tables with a few university students sitting at some of the tables.

California banned affirmative action in the late 1990s. Public universities such as the University of California, Irvine (pictured) introduced race-neutral alternatives to try to maintain student diversity. Those efforts largely fell short.

Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a half-century of precedent and made it illegal for public and private universities and colleges to consider race in student admissions. The decision comes at a time when the nation is rapidly diversifying, with less than half of children under age 15 identifying as white.

No one can know for sure how the ending of affirmative action will ultimately alter these schools’ racial compositions. But insights from California, which banned race-based admissions at its public universities in the late 1990s, are suggestive.

Immediately following the ban, the percentage of Black, Hispanic and Native American students attending selective colleges in the state plummeted, research shows. With the introduction of race-neutral policies aimed at capturing a similar population of underrepresented students a few years later, those numbers rebounded somewhat, but remain far lower than previous levels.

Science News spoke with labor economist Zachary Bleemer of Princeton University, who has spent years studying what happened in California. “I think [California’s affirmative action ban] is the closest thing we’ve got to a reasonable sort of microcosm for what is about to happen nationally,” he says.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SN: How has affirmative action influenced the college-admissions process over time?

Bleemer: Affirmative action has gone through two primary iterations in the United States. From when it started in the late 1960s through the early 2000s, affirmative action was generally a point-based admissions policy that provided an immediate and directed admissions advantage to Black, Hispanic and Native American students.

Imagine that a university has some point-based admissions policy: Take SAT scores plus GPA times a thousand, plus 500 points for extracurriculars, 300 points for leadership activities and 300 points for Black, Hispanic and Native American students. It was just extra points for students from minority backgrounds. It has tended to target Black, Hispanic and Native American students though it has also targeted, at various points, Filipino and other Southeast Asian students.

Then point-based affirmative action policies became unconstitutional in 2003. Since then, race is something that admissions readers pay attention to as they are going through undergraduate applications, providing admissions advantages.

It’s worth emphasizing that in both periods, affirmative action [effects] could be really big. There might have been students with a very similar application. If they were white, they would have almost no chance of getting into a university, whereas if they were Black, they would have been basically guaranteed admission. Some people think of affirmative action as a light-touch policy, but it’s not. It provides very substantial admissions advantages in many cases on the basis of race.

SN: Affirmative action has long generated controversy. Why?

Bleemer: I think there are two primary public criticisms of affirmative action. The first is a question of fairness. People think that it’s unfair to provide admissions advantages based on a born characteristic of young people.

I think it’s primarily for that reason that even in California, a liberal state, when affirmative action was on the ballot in 1996, it lost by 10 points. And when it was back on the ballot in 2020, it lost by 14 points. And it seems to have lost among Hispanic voters, a group that benefits from affirmative action. So this is a deeply publicly unpopular policy.

The second criticism is the concern that affirmative action may not actually benefit the people it’s supposed to benefit. This “mismatch hypothesis” is the idea that, even if you give Black and Hispanic students access to more selective universities, they are going to struggle. They’re not going to be able to compete with their peers in challenging courses. They may have a difficult time getting into selective college majors. They may be more likely to drop out.

As an economist, I was very interested in knowing if this was true on average, whether affirmative action did benefit or even generate costs on average for the Black and Hispanic students it targeted.

The quick and dirty is that the mismatch hypothesis is not true on average. Black and Hispanic students really do derive very substantial advantages from more selective university enrollments. That includes increases in degree attainment, [including] STEM degree attainment, and higher wages through people’s 20s and 30s.

SN: What happened in California after affirmative action ended at its public universities?

Bleemer: California was this really interesting natural experiment. There were a bunch of kids who wouldn’t typically have been admitted to selective universities who were admitted because of affirmative action. And then there were the kids who abruptly lost access to those universities when the state of California banned affirmative action in 1998. What happened to the kids who turned 18 one year too late to take advantage of the state’s former policies?

In my research, I found three main things. The first is that affirmative action bans lead to this cascade of Black and Hispanic students into less-selective universities, with the largest enrollment declines in the most selective schools. This then leads to long-term negative outcomes for Black and Hispanic students in terms of lower graduation rates and lost wages. The third finding is that this decline in Black and Hispanic students’ outcomes isn’t met by equal gains for the white and Asian students who replace them.

Every time a selective university goes out of its way to admit lower-testing but disadvantaged students [through affirmative action], that low-testing student seems to derive substantially above average gains from access to the school.

SN: Are there race-neutral alternatives to recruiting diverse college students that work?

Bleemer: The most popular of these policies, known as top percent policies, guarantee admission to some number of students coming from the top of every high school in a given state. Top percent policies have been implemented in four states: California, Texas, Florida and Georgia. The original policy in California was the top 4 percent of students. That policy got those students into all the campuses in the University of California system other than UC Berkeley or UCLA.

At really good high schools, the top 4 percent of students could have already gotten into, say, UC Davis or UC Irvine. The policy doesn’t do very much at those schools. At the lowest-preparation high schools in California — where even the valedictorian would have had a hard time getting into Irvine [or elsewhere] absent this policy — they matter a lot.

These policies tended to increase Black and Hispanic enrollment at UC Irvine, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, by about 7 or 8 percent. But, for context, affirmative action increased Black and Hispanic enrollment across the University of California system by 20 percent. Affirmative action directly targets students on the basis of race. With top percent policies, many of the top 4 percent students aren’t Black or Hispanic. So a lot of the kids who are pulled into the universities are not on average diversifying those campuses.

SN: Would replacing race-based affirmative action policies with class-based policies help retain student diversity?

Bleemer: Targeting students on the basis of income has a very small effect on the racial composition of universities. In the same way, race-based affirmative action hardly increases lower income enrollment.

Think about who are the lower income students on the margin of admission to a selective university — the kids who, if you were to give them a bump, would just clear the bar. The low income students with high enough test scores to make it into these selective universities are mostly not Black or Hispanic.

It really depends on what your goal is. If your goal is racial diversity, class-based affirmative action won’t give that to you. But if your goal is class diversity, class-based affirmative action will deliver that.

SN: Another race-based alternative to affirmative action is holistic review. What’s that?

Bleemer: Rather than having a point-based scheme that admits all the students with the highest point at some threshold and rejects all the students with the fewest points, holistic review allows a lot more discretion to admissions counselors.

Counselors can contextualize the information, such as giving preference to a student with low test scores from a low-income background. In holistic review, students might be admitted because of their promise, not because of their explicit high level of preparation.

I found that campuses [in California] that implemented holistic review saw Black and Hispanic enrollment increases by 7 percent. Remember, affirmative action increased enrollment by 20 percent, so this is smaller but still meaningful.

Still, if the goal is to increase Black, Native American and Hispanic enrollment, race-based affirmative action is much more impactful than the race-neutral alternatives that universities have implemented as replacements. If your goal is racial diversity, nothing does that as well as explicit race-based targeting.

Sujata Gupta is the social sciences writer and is based in Burlington, Vt.

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