It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — at least, for the University of California, it is.
For the 10th consecutive year, the UC has received more applications than ever before, and is also admitting students at a rapid pace, giving more students than ever access to a higher education. State funding has also increased, with Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014 budget allocating an additional $142.2 million to the UC, bringing its state funding supply to just short of $3 billion. Beyond that aura of hope, however, lies another truth: The UC still receives less state funding than pre-Recession levels and students are still living in fear of a tuition hike. And beyond the traditional travails of facing a lack of funding, the UC has also had to deal with numerous labor strikes and angry protests over Janet Napolitano’s selection as UC president.
These headline-grabbing stories are important, to be sure. But they have also masked another percolating issue that some say the UC has been ducking for too long: race. Late last year, UCLA junior Sy Stokes published a video in which he decries the lack of diversity at one of the country’s premier institutions of higher education, noting that there are only 75 black male freshmen in a university of over 28,000 undergraduates, or about 0.27 percent of the campus undergraduate population. Moreover, a recent UC report on campus climate found that nearly 23 percent of UC students experienced “exclusionary, hostile or offensive conduct.”
Those are pretty damning numbers. So it makes sense that some people have called for the UC and the state to take measures, like legalizing affirmative action, to improve the situation.
But when you look at the numbers a bit more closely, a slightly different pattern emerges. As of fall 2012, enrolled undergraduates in the UC broke down to 33.6 percent Asian, 30 percent white, 17.5 percent Latino and 3.6 percent African-American (the remainder were international students or declined to state their ethnicity). When compared to California’s demographics at large, African-Americans are underrepresented by only 3 percent while whites are underrepresented by nearly 10 percent. (The glaring problem is the UC’s Latino population, which is lower than the state’s by a 20 percent chasm.)
Most of the UCs track well with the state’s demographics. UCR, for instance, matches the state’s African-American population almost exactly at 6.5 percent and narrows the gap in Latino students to a less-harrowing — but still problematic — 7 percent; whites comprise only 17 percent of the student population. UCLA and UC Berkeley, despite their selective processes, fare better with African-Americans than UC San Diego and UC Irvine. But even then, their overall averages aren’t much worse than the UC as a whole. U.S. News and World Report ranks every UC within the top 15 percent of all national universities when it comes to ethnic universities, and all except two are in the top 10 percent (UC Merced is not included in the data).
Moreover, UCLA and UC Berkeley are head-and-shoulders ahead of comparable private universities when it comes to diversity. The single largest ethnic group at Stanford, Loyola Marymount and the University of Southern California is whites; Latinos meanwhile lag far behind (although the African-American student population at each is admittedly higher).
This is not to say that the UC cannot improve upon its diversity. Indeed, the UC’s lack of African-American and Latino students is especially disappointing given its reputation as a beacon of light for the rest of the state and the country. As students know, the UC is far from perfect and it most certainly can do better. At the same time, the UC is itself more diverse than many other universities. There is a problem to be sure but it is a manageable one, and proposals to reinstate affirmative action are like using a wrecking ball to demolish a Jenga tower — all it really needs is a simple push. The UC has many options before it, and relying on affirmative action should be a last resort.
UCR is so diverse primarily because it has extensive outreach programs that focus on giving first-generation college students and students from underserved communities the information they need to attend college and obtain a degree. Many students simply believe college is out of reach for them, and just do not apply. One potential idea is for each UC campus to hold a college fair or information session at each high school within a certain radius of the campus. The UC as a whole can provide backup support for high schools that are far from a UC campus, ensuring that all students receive information about the benefits college can bring to students. UCs can hire additional staff to focus specifically on reaching out to specific underserved communities and do more to emphasize the support available to students of color on their campuses.
Of particular importance is breaking down the walls that bar students from the most prestigious UCs. One method can be to expand eligibility in the local context (ELC), a standard-setting policy that ensures that California high school students who graduate in the top 9 percent of their class are guaranteed admission to a UC with room for more students. Expanding ELC to even just 10 percent of California high school students (as the University of Texas does) would give many more students, many of them from underprivileged communities, access to a UC.
The state of California can play a role in expanding access as well. Many students of color may not apply to the UC because they cannot afford the costs of attending college. Expanding access to need-based financial aid is one way to ameliorate that problem. The Middle Class Scholarship Act, which cuts tuition by 40 percent for students whose families make less than $100,000 a year, is one positive step forward. Not only does it increase affordability, it encourages students who might not otherwise accept a UC admission for fear of cost to do so. The state can also expand the Cal Grant program, which awards scholarships to high-achieving low-income students, many of whom are students of color.
If the state and the UC attempt all the possible solutions and the result is still null, then affirmative action might be worth a renewed debate. Until that point, however, it’s an unnecessary course of action that the state doesn’t need to take.