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Race Preferential College Admissions

Race Preferential College Admissions

And how they ultimately hurt minority students and expose a glaring hypocrisy in the California education system.


State-funded universities in California are pushing to use race as a metric for college admissions, a practice many Californians believe should stay in the past. But while claiming to champion educational opportunity for low-income and minority students, the state fails these students at the K-12 level. Affirmative action has received renewed national attention in the wake of two separate but related cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on October 31. The two lawsuits, one against Harvard and the other against the University of North Carolina, were both brought by the group Students for Fair Admissions.

While California schools aren’t directly a party in either case, Supreme Court precedent on race-based admissions, which goes back decades, has involved California universities at times. In the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that racial quotas for college admissions violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In that case, UC Davis Medical School had reserved 16 out of every 100 seats for the ‘disadvantaged’ students (racial minorities). White student Allan Bakke’s application was  rejected, despite the fact that his GPA and MCAT scores were significantly higher than those of the minority students admitted to fill the quota. In response, he filed a lawsuit. The High Court struck down the school’s quota system, but held that non-quota admissions criteria which account for race are acceptable. The case essentially upheld non-quota affirmative action

In 1996, eighteen years after the Bakke ruling, Californians voted to end all race-based admissions and employment in the state by approving Proposition 209, which passed with a 54.55% yes-vote. Prop 209 added Section 31 to Article 1 of the California Constitution, affirming: “The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” This applies to any “public university system, including the University of California, community college district, school district, special district, or any other political subdivision or governmental instrumentality” according to §31(f).

Prop 209 outlawed racial discrimination in California, even if it’s meant to help a certain group. But California legislators have worked to undermine Prop 209 and the vote of Californians. In 2020 the legislature — in what’s called a “legislatively referred constitutional amendment” — put Proposition 16 on the ballot, which would have repealed Prop 209 if passed. The Regents of the University of California spoke out in support of Prop 16. Claiming that the UC system does not engage in race preferential admissions, the Regents wrote in defense of Prop 16: “race-neutral admissions have harmed UC’s ability to enroll a student body that reflects the full diversity of California.” However, the Regents do acknowledge that they  “use multiple measures to evaluate student promise and achievement,” including “challenges and adversity” (which can serve as proxy for race), and that “the proportion of students from underrepresented groups has grown” as a result of their new admissions criteria.

Proposition 16 failed, with voters casting a 57.23% no-vote. In other words, a majority of California voters wanted to keep Prop 209 in place, maintaining the constitutional ban on the state engaging in race-based discrimination or preferential treatment.

The argument behind Prop 16 was that Prop 209 diminished the number of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in California higher education. But importantly, despite these claims by universities, politicians, and others, Prop 209 has proven to be a good thing for URMs in the state. Richard Sander writes in the University of Chicago Law Review:

The four-year graduation rate of URMs in the UC system nearly doubled in the ten years after Prop. 209’s adoption… The number of African-American graduates slightly dipped initially (again, before UC’s new outreach efforts kicked in), but had risen to a record level by 2006…and by 2017 the number of Black UC graduates had risen 70 percent above pre-Prop. 209 levels…the number of Black STEM UC graduates rose from an annual average of around 200 before Prop. 209 to 510 in 2017 and 558 in 2018.  The numbers for Hispanics were even more impressive: the number of Hispanic UC graduates quadrupled over the twenty years after Prop. 209, and the number of Hispanic UC graduates in STEM fields quintupled.

This is hardly a suppression of minorities in California universities. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

Section 31(e) of Article 1 (the constitutional amendment added by Prop 209) makes an exception for the state to consider race in cases where discrimination is necessary to “establish or maintain eligibility for any federal program, where ineligibility would result in a loss of federal funds to the State.” Translation: the state may use race as a factor in college admissions if the end goal is to receive federal money. The US Department of Education has three Title V grants for “Hispanic-Serving Institutions” (HSI) or schools that have a student population that is at least 25% Hispanic. On the list of over 140 California higher education institutions that qualify are twenty-one California State University schools and five University of California schools.

Public university systems like California State and University of California claim to use color-blind admissions policies (though some campuses like UC Berkeley release plans to increase minority representation to meet the 25% HSI quota). But as Dr. Wenyuan Wu  points out, it is undeniable that “there are substantial economic incentives for a higher education institution to become an HSI,” combined with an ideological drive to be the most demographically diverse. These financial and ideological motivations — in conjunction with the universities’ nearly-singular emphasis on race and openness about affirmative action in the hiring of staff — have caused researchers like Dr. Wu and her colleagues to doubt the veracity of the claim that admissions policies are race-neutral.


So why is the debate over race-preferential admissions so important?

For decades, the data have demonstrated that race-preferential admissions policies hurt, not help, the Black and Latino students intended to benefit from them. Gail Heriot, Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and a US Civil Rights Commissioner, writes:

In the years following Bakke, race-preferential admissions policies mushroomed on college and university campuses. As they grew, millions of Americans, correctly or incorrectly, came to view themselves as beneficiaries. More important, a thriving diversity and remedial education bureaucracy was established to administer the policies and deal with the consequences.

Professor Heriot explains that ultimately, “preferential treatment has made it more difficult for talented African-American and Hispanic students to enter high-prestige careers,” so we have fewer minority “physicians, scientists, and engineers than we would have had if colleges and universities had followed race-neutral policies.” 

How does admitting more minority students into prestigious institutions yield fewer minority professionals in prestigious careers, especially in the sciences, medicine, and law? When race-preferential admissions are instituted, many of the minority students admitted as a result of the policy have lower academic credentials than their classmates. This lack of academic preparation pushes under-prepared students to the bottom of their classes, and  contributes to the high attrition rates of minority students with highly competitive majors. It’s not only individual performance, but also performance relative to other classmates, that impacts long-term success. Heriot explains:

“…While there are many individual students of all races with excellent entering science credentials, the average for African Americans and Hispanics as groups is below that for the nation as a whole. Until this situation changes, students from those groups are all but certain to have higher than average attrition rates from science and engineering…[because]  as a result of race-preferential admissions policies… those same groups are concentrated toward the bottom of selective colleges and universities.” (Emphasis added)

The data reveals the disparity in students’ success. “African-American students attending law schools failed or dropped out at much higher rates than white students: 19.3 percent vs. 8.2 percent,” Heriot reports. For science and engineering majors, “70 percent of Asians persisted in their ambition, while 61 percent of whites, 55 percent of Hispanics, and 34 percent of blacks did.” 

Frederick Smyth and John McArdle explain in Research and Higher Education journal that while race-sensitive admission increases access to elite colleges for some minority students, those policies overall cause “disproportionate loss of talented underrepresented minority students from science majors.” But the phenomenon is not limited to elite colleges only; it has a trickle-down effect to other institutions. When elite schools relax admissions policies to admit more students of a certain race, schools one rung down must do the same to avoid having fewer underrepresented minority students than they otherwise would have had. 

The heart of the problem is called ‘mismatch theory,’ the phenomenon where “college students admitted with academic qualifications drastically lower than those of their peers will learn less and face a much higher chance of dropping out of science and other rigorous majors” (Mac Donald). Of course, the determining factor of mismatch isn’t race. There are countless academically gifted minority students who earned their places at elite institutions, and who suffer no mismatch consequences. Rather, the phenomenon arises when any student is admitted to a higher-level college program without being sufficiently prepared. African American and Latino students are disproportionately impacted by mismatch because of the failure of public schools to adequately educate many minority students. 

Smyth and McArdle’s research likewise finds that the mismatch phenomenon driven by race-preferential admissions is responsible for high attrition rates for minority students.

All students, regardless of their race, are better served by attending colleges where they are academically comparable to their peers. Take African American students in the law field: under color-blind admissions policies fewer black students would be admitted to law schools overall (3,182 vs. 3,706 according to Heriot’s calculation), but a greater share of those who are admitted would do well and go on to pass the bar (2,150 vs. 1,981) than under the current race-based system, ultimately leading to more black lawyers rather then fewer. 

Color-blind admissions would also mitigate the mismatch phenomenon, helping students during their college programs but also in their post-college careers overall. This is because the goal isn’t to simply get into the most prestigious school, it’s to get into the school where you are most likely to succeed during and after your program.

“The average African-American female with a combined SAT score of 1400 will earn more than $3,800 extra by attending the University of North Carolina if, as her SAT scores suggest she will, she graduates in the top third of her class rather than by attending Yale University if, as her scores suggest, she graduates in the bottom third.” (Heriot).

The ultimate issue isn’t race. It’s the disparity in how students arer being prepared for college and careers. Smyth and McArdle’s research confirms a 1986-1995 study‘s findings that “ethnic variables added a zero amount to the prediction of SME [science, math, engineering] graduation after accounting for precollege academic preparation.”

While the idea for race-preferential admissions may have been well-intentioned, the data going back decades is irrefutable: the practice is hurting, hot helping, minority students. It’s time to pivot the focus to K-12 education, and offer a high quality public education to all kids so they’ll be equipped to pursue any major and any career. Altering admissions criteria to usher students into colleges they’re not prepared for is like attempting to mend a broken bone with a band-aid — it ignores the nature and the severity of the problem. The root of the issue in California is found in the state’s failing K-12 education system. The solution is obvious: improve the education system so that it academically prepares all students from the very start. 

In their examination of women and minorities in science and technical fields, Susan Chipman and Veronica Thomas identify the importance of closing demographic achievement gaps early in life. A successful plan to mitigate disparities in prestigious careers must include a quality education for all students starting in the earliest grades. Yet California fails to do this.

Minority K-12 students are being left behind to a devastating degree in the state. In 2022, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that among California students, only 7 percent of Black eighth grade students and 11 percent of Hispanic eighth grade students scored at a ‘proficient’ level for math. Furthermore, only 12 percent of Black fourth graders and 18 percent of Hispanic fourth graders are proficient in reading in California. These dismal figures come despite California’s annual education budget north of $120 billion. Additionally, in 2019-20 alone, California spent over $15 billion in ongoing programs for disadvantaged students.

Dr. Wu aptly writes: “Giving large-scale racial preferences to students who are not academically qualified for rigorous university coursework in elite schools exacerbates academic mismatch and the soft bigotry of low expectations. Blaming all disparities, observed and imagined, on racism peddles division and victimhood. In the meantime, real injustices at cultural, community, and individual levels remain unsolved.” 


The Role of California’s Teachers Unions

The data is clear: California students need quality instruction focused on reading, writing, math, and science. Yet California —and the state’s teachers unions — have increasingly pushed tried-and-true instruction aside to make room for ethnic and gender studies frameworks. The more time spent on cultural ideology means less time spent on actually improving students’ foundational skill sets that they’ll need for college and careers. 

Instead of advancing teaching and accountability standards to better prepare kids, the teachers unions fight against them and instead push for affirmative action. Unions would rather  cover up the problem than solve the problem itself. In 2020, the California Teachers Association (CTA), one of the most powerful special interests in the state, contributed over $3.5 million to a pro-Prop 16 committee, in support of  overturning the constitutional requirement to treat all races equally. Year after year, the teachers unions support affirmative action and race-preferential admissions, while doing nothing meaningful to address the needs of minority students when it comes to K-12 education. 

California teachers unions also regularly protect poor-performing teachers from termination because of their union  seniority status, putting the worst teachers ahead of the needs of students. In 2012, nine public school students in California filed suit, claiming that teacher tenure laws harm students and disproportionately impact minorities (Vergara v. California). In 2014 the California Superior Court ruled in favor of the students, but in 2016 that decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the teacher tenure policies in place. California teachers unions, such as the CTA (an affiliate of the National Education Association) and California Federation of Teachers (an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) were the largest and most outspoken forces in favor of protecting the teacher tenure system.

In addition, California’s low-income minority students are suffering from even greater education disparities after the state’s teachers unions campaigned to keep schools closed far longer than other states during the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the nation, including California, teachers unions weaponized school reopenings, holding them hostage as leverage to get increased benefits. And it was at the kids’ expense. 

Mckinsey & Company find in their analysis that because of school closures across the nation, kids in the U.S. are on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, which could translate to earning $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetimes.  A Harvard Center for Education Policy Research report found that “in high-poverty schools that stayed remote for the majority of the 2020-21 school year, students missed the equivalent of 22 weeks of in-person math learning,” which is more than half of the traditional school year. Furthermore, states with a higher proportion of remote instruction — including California — saw worse learning loss than states that prioritized in-person learning.


School Choice

Given the teacher unions’ stranglehold on California’s traditional public schools, it’s no wonder that California parents  — especially minority parents — are opting for charter schools and homeschooling in record numbers. California’s public school system lost over 294,000 students from 2018-19 to 2021-22. Increasingly, parents are choosing alternatives to the traditional public school system. But teachers unions vehemently oppose educational choice options like charter schools (falsely portrayed as free from accountability by the CTA and CFT), school vouchers (opposed by the AFT), and homeschooling (CTA board member Lloyd Porter celebrated an attempt to limit homeschooling freedom). If teachers unions really cared about minority students, they wouldn’t try to shut down alternative education options that succeed in academically preparing students. 

To truly support disadvantaged Black and Latino students, California should focus on reforming its K-12 public education system to better prepare all students equally, instead of trying to cover up the system’s failures by altering college admissions criteria. Providing disadvantaged minority students with a solid education foundation is the best way to ensure they’ll succeed in college and beyond. 


-Sheridan Swanson is a Research Associate with the California Policy Center. Dr. Wenyuan Wu, Executive Director at the Californians for Equal Rights (CFER) Foundation, contributed to the research. You can read more from Dr. Wu at Minding the Campus


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