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What the end of affirmative action could mean for college diversity

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging affirmative action in higher education. And based on the questions the justices asked, experts believe the court's conservative majority is set to rule that universities cannot consider race when deciding who to admit. To get a sense of what that would mean for higher education, we're going to look at somewhere where affirmative action in public university admissions is already outlawed - here in California. I'm joined by Mitchell Chang. He's the associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of California, Los Angeles. Mitchell Chang, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MITCHELL CHANG: Thank you. Happy to be here.

FLORIDO: In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which said public schools and universities could not use race as a factor in admissions. What was the immediate impact of this affirmative action ban on student bodies at universities like yours, UCLA?

CHANG: Oh, at UCLA, we saw a significant drop in African American and Latino students. In fact, the drop was around 50%. And it took us over a decade to get the Latino student numbers at UCLA back to what they were prior to Proposition 209 going into effect and nearly two decades to get the numbers back to what they were for African American students.

FLORIDO: How did UCLA end up getting those numbers back up or at least closer to what they were before Prop 209?

CHANG: Well, first of all, I want to emphasize how difficult this was. So basically, we had to revamp how we approach admissions. On the one side, we looked beyond grades and test scores and took into account the applicants as a whole or what we often refer to as took a more holistic approach. The other side had to do with leveling up our outreach programs and engagement with underserved communities.

FLORIDO: At the end of the day, though, you've got an admissions office which is looking at applications on paper, and you can't consider race. If you couldn't consider race directly, what could you look at in deciding which students to admit?

CHANG: Well, one of the most widely used race-neutral approaches are we take the top 9% of high school graduates in California, and we guarantee them a spot in the UCs. Usually folded into these plans is a recognition of ensuring that for those high schools that send fewer students to the UCs, that we would guarantee those students that graduate in the top of their class a guaranteed spot at a place like UCLA. The other proxy is eliminating achievement test scores. For decades, we have seen disparities in test scores across race, and much of it has to do with historical racism in our country. So eliminating the consideration of test scores is another proxy, and another one is to consider family income or student's parental education level.

FLORIDO: It sounds like your admissions officers have to use a lot of proxies for race. Is it as effective?

CHANG: Well, simply put, no. And this is why it took as long as it did.

FLORIDO: And yet UCLA and other public colleges in California are pretty diverse. That seems to lend itself to the argument that affirmative action opponents make, which is you don't need to consider race directly because, look, you've been able to achieve diversity in other ways.

CHANG: Yeah, but look what happened immediately after we stopped considering race. The numbers dropped significantly and excluded them from accessing a level of higher education that prepares them to become leaders in our state.

FLORIDO: You know, professor, a lot of people think that affirmative action is simply unfair, that people should get into school based solely on their academic merits. What do you say to those people? Why is a diverse student body achieved in part by allowing universities to consider the race of their applicants? Why is that diverse student body important?

CHANG: So regarding the point of whether or not it's fair, what the public generally failed to recognize is just how competitive it is to get into some of these universities. So it's very, very hard for universities to figure out who to enroll when there are so many qualified applicants, so they have to map those choices onto their mission. And their mission includes making sure that students after graduation will be engaging meaningfully in their communities and be better prepared to engage in a multiracial democracy. So with those interests, they seek to craft a student body that can help them fulfill that other mission as well.

FLORIDO: What do you think the UC system's experience tells us about what the future might hold for the rest of the country?

CHANG: Our experience tells us that the best way to address the persistent racial disparities based on centuries of racial discrimination is to directly account for race. And if institutions of higher education aren't able to use that as an option to enroll a racially diverse student body, race-neutral alternatives will take a lot of time, a lot of effort to get their student bodies back to where they were prior to the consideration of race-conscious admissions practices.

FLORIDO: That was Mitchell Chang. He's associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. Professor Chang, thanks so much for being with us.

CHANG: You bet. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.