Dive Brief:

  • The University of California (UC) regents Monday unanimously backed a state measure that would restore affirmative action to public colleges in one of the country’s biggest higher ed markets. 

  • The governing board endorsed a state constitutional amendment, Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA 5), that would repeal California’s ban on considering race, sex and ethnicity in public education, employment and contracting. 

  • Proponents of the initiative say it is vital to fixing equity issues within California’s colleges and to reinvigorate discussion of affirmative action nationwide.

Dive Insight:

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which bars government entities from factoring race, sex and ethnicity in areas of education and employment. While the measure is broadly focused, debate on it has long centered around race-conscious college admissions policies.

The UC system stopped using race, ethnicity and gender as admission considerations in 1995, which led to a sharp drop in the share of underrepresented students on its campuses — from 20% of admitted students in 1995 to 15% by 1998 — according to a memo from the office of UC President Janet Napolitano. The system’s most selective campuses, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Los Angeles, were most deeply affected, the memo notes.

Officials attempted to rectify the inequities. A program created in 2001 guarantees admission to one of the system’s campuses to the top 9% of students at participating high schools, no matter their background. 

By 2016, underrepresented students accounted for 37% of admits to system campuses. However, the portion of underrepresented students among the state’s high school graduates also increased — from 39% in 1998 to 59% in 2016 — meaning the system was relatively stagnant in its efforts.

The UC system commonly refers to underrepresented students as those who are American Indian, African American or Hispanic/Latino.

“Despite nearly two decades of effort and experimentation with race-neutral admissions at UC, the University’s enrollment of students from underrepresented groups and recruitment of faculty of color falls short of reflecting the rich diversity of California’s population,” the memo states.

The new state measure would once again greenlight affirmative action and overturn Proposition 209. It passed the lower house of the Legislature 60-14 last week. If the state’s Senate approves it with at least a two-thirds majority by June 25, then the state could vote on it in November. 

The UC regents voted unanimously at a special virtual meeting Monday to endorse the amendment. Board chair John Pérez said during the meeting that ACA 5 was working its way through the Legislature faster than expected.

The measure has seen pushback, including from those who fear the rule will make it more difficult for Asian-American students to gain admission to the state’s colleges. Some of these organizations have historically been opponents of race-sensitive admissions. 

The 80-20 National Asian American Education Foundation supported getting rid of affirmative action in one of the most significant challenges to such policies. In it, a White woman named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin alleging that its affirmative action policies discriminated against her. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the university’s admissions practices.

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