California was one of the first states to abolish affirmative action, after voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996. Across the University of California system, Latinos fell to 12 percent of newly enrolled state residents in the mid-1990s from more than 15 percent, and blacks declined to 3 percent from 4 percent. At the most competitive campuses, at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the decline was much steeper.
Eventually, the numbers rebounded. Until last fall, 25 percent of new students were Latino, reflecting the booming Hispanic population, and 4 percent were black. A similar pattern of decline and recovery followed at other state universities that eliminated race as a factor in admissions.
If the Supreme Court justices, who are expected to rule in the coming weeks on a case involving the University of Texas at Austin, decide to curtail or abolish the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions nationwide, then the experience here and in other states that have outlawed affirmative action in college admissions decisions — including Florida, Michigan and Washington — could point to new ways for public universities to try to compose a racially and economically diverse student body.
Those states have tried a series of new approaches to choosing students, giving applicants a leg up for overcoming disadvantages like poverty, language barriers, low-performing schools and troubled neighborhoods. That process has drawn heavy scrutiny, but in California, it is only half of a two-pronged approach. Disadvantaged students in poor neighborhoods, like Erick Ramirez, a senior at Anaheim High School, are benefiting from the state university systems’ growing efforts to cultivate applicants starting in middle school.
“We’ve worked very hard to widen the pipeline, and there is still an enormous need to do more,” said Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system.
The results of California’s efforts offer some measure of satisfaction to supporters and critics alike. Both sides hail the U.C. system’s strides toward economic — and not just racial — diversity; opponents of affirmative action claim that as vindication of their argument that it primarily benefits middle-class minority members. Supporters of race-conscious admissions acknowledge that the system has reversed the initial decline in black and Hispanic enrollment, though they say that is not enough. Whatever the merits of race-blind admissions, gifted poor and minority students are less likely than others to take the right classes to be eligible for college admission, to take the SAT or ACT, to get academic help when they need it, to fill out complex forms properly or to apply to competitive colleges.
So California’s public universities, and some of their counterparts around the country, have embedded themselves deeply in disadvantaged communities, working with schools, students and parents to identify promising teenagers and get more of them into college.
It is not enough, university administrators say, to change the way they select students; they must also change the students themselves, and begin to do so long before the time arrives to fill out applications.
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