Is diversity important in higher education? And, if so, what programs and measures foster diversity?
For some time now, the idea of affirmative action in higher education has garnered much debate. Comments on the matter have ranged from calling it an effort to establish “racial quotas” to one that “accepts students based solely on their race, not merit.” Debates have been divisive, with misinformation and fear fueling the arguments of those who oppose it.
Affirmative action has been illegal in California since the passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, which prohibited institutions of public employment, public contracting and public education in California from considering race, sex, or ethnicity. But since then, efforts have been made to repeal the ban that prohibits the state from considering any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity in public college and university admissions.
What misinformation and fears surround affirmative action? When some hear the words “affirmative action” or “race-conscious admissions,” they initially assume these measures are synonymous with racial quota systems and discriminatory or preferential treatment. However, the use of racial quotas have been outlawed from the policies of public university admissions since 1978. Rather than giving preferential treatment to individuals based solely on their racial or ethnic identity, affirmative action looks at historically disadvantaged groups and considers their experiences of obstacles and barriers specific to minorities. Race would simply be another factor to consider in admissions, alongside GPA and SAT scores. Students admitted through affirmative action would be qualified and well-deserving.
Why does affirmative action aim for inclusion and equal opportunity? Because historically, legal policies and measures have excluded minorities from institutions. Affirmative action allows underrepresented minorities a chance at a level playing field, something they do not currently have given that the education system was not built for people of color to readily have access to. Prior to applying, students do not all have the same resources geared toward higher education. Thinking about educational equity requires critically looking at the realities of race in our society.
Programs that already exist to ensure diversity include the UC’s Early Academic Outreach Program and the Eligibility in the Local Context Program, which admits the top 9 percent of students in their class from most California high schools. Although these programs have been great in outreaching and retaining students in higher education, they prove to be insufficient, as seen in the dropping enrollment percentages of underrepresented minorities across the UCs. Affirmative action should be considered to ensure increased accessibility to higher education for all students.
Looking at how minorities have fared in states where affirmative action has been banned reflects the significance this measure has on diversity. Public universities, such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, have tended to enroll less African Americans and Latinos following the ban on affirmative action in 1996. Although the Latino population has grown in California to be the second largest ethnic group, the gap disparity between this number and the Latino population in these UCs has also grown. As of 2011, Latinos make up 49 percent of California’s college-aged residents. However, they make up only 11 percent at UC Berkeley and 17 percent at UCLA. As of 2011, African Americans make up 9 percent of California’s college-aged residents. However, they make up only 2 percent at UC Berkeley and 3 percent at UCLA. The number of Latino and African American students in these UCs fails to reflect California’s demographics. Instead, these gap disparities reflect the impact that the ban of affirmative action has had on the representation of minority communities. The end of race-conscious admissions also corresponds to the decreasing admission rates of Asian Pacific Islanders (API), as seen in the significant decrease of API admissions for UC campuses from 1998 to 2009 (with the exception of UCR). Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are underrepresented ethnic groups within the API community with significantly lower rates of higher education attainment and accessibility who would benefit greatly from affirmative action.
There needs to be an encompassing conversation that addresses the importance of having racial diversity within higher education, whether that be from affirmative action or other programs. Students had this conversation on April 15, 2014 at The Importance of Unity: Students Discuss Racial Diversity and Racial Justice, a community dialogue organized by UCR’s ethnic and gender programs. In this space, students voiced the different perspectives they heard about affirmative action, while learning to deconstruct its misconceptions and history. Race isn’t necessarily the problem. It becomes a problem when race is attached to disadvantages and advantages.
There is a continuous need for programs that address the racial inequality that exists in the United States. The idea of the U.S. being a postracial society is a myth that ignores the obstacles and barriers that people of color have to experience on a daily basis. Conversations about race can be difficult. However, speaking openly and candidly about race is the most obvious way to stop discrimination. The efforts of students who persist on having conversations addressing the realities of race embody a movement toward educational equity, racial equality and social justice.
Be critical and be conscious of the realities of race and racism in society and education. Alongside deconstructing its misconceptions, reframing affirmative action into something that is relevant for our generation today is imperative to having principled conversations about the ways that we can achieve equal opportunity of education for everyone.