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California universities may see return of affirmative action

University of California San Diego

Patrick Chen will never forget the cautionary tales he heard before sending in his University of California application.

“I remember how there was a myth even as I was applying to college that my ethnicity would disadvantage me in getting into UC,” said Chen, a 22-year-old who serves on the board of UCI’s Asian Pacific Student Association.

But the fifth-year computer informatics major made the cut, and demographic data shows that his success shouldn’t be a surprise: Asian American students are the predominant ethnic group on the UCI campus, making up nearly half of freshman admissions in 2013, and 36 percent across the UC system.

Still, Chen’s experience highlights the deeply divided views over the roles of race and ethnicity in admissions to California’s public universities, an issue that has reignited in the state Capitol.

State officials last week agreed to create a task force to review whether the University of California, California State University and community colleges should change their procedures with the aim of broadening college access.

The soon-to-be-named panel comes after a proposal to ask California voters to let university officials consider an applicant’s race. But the idea ran into swift opposition from some Asian American groups.

“I think the conversation is long overdue,” said UC Irvine Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham, while discussing the merits of the 1996 ballot initiative that struck down affirmative action in California.

Parnham, also active with the 100 Black Men of Orange County organization, added the ban on affirmative action has “had an interesting and, some would argue, devastating effect on certain elements, felt most acutely in the African American community.”

California became the first state to ban affirmative action in college admissions when voters approved Proposition 209. That policy, which went into effect in 1998, prohibits state institutions from “discriminating against or granting preferential treatment” on the basis of race, sex, or national origin in employment, contracting and college admissions.

Student diversity statistics within the UC system shows admissions among black and Latino students significantly declined after the policy went into effect. Despite some gains, those groups continue to be underrepresented, while the percentage of Asian American students at UC greatly outpaces the rate of Asian high school graduates in California.

But some groups argue that their childrens’ chances for getting into college could be hurt if affirmative action is allowed when considering admission.

“We felt this is really discrimination,” said Olivia Liao, president of the 40,000-member Joint Chinese University Alumni Association. “When you talk about higher education, it should be based on merit and that should be the only criteria.”

MISMATCHED ADMISSIONS

The proposed constitutional amendment in favor of affirmative action for university admissions came from Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina. The idea was to address the racial disparities in the state’s higher-education system. When the initiative passed the Senate in January, he said the state is suffering from inequalities caused by Prop. 209 and that his measure would help “keep that talent pool right here in the state.”

UC’s admitted freshman class last fall was 36 percent Asian, 28 percent white, 27 percent Latino and 4 percent black, according to university data. But state education data for high school graduates in 2012 shows this breakdown: 14 percent Asian, 31 percent white, 45 percent Latino and about 7 percent black.

At UC Irvine, less than 3 percent of those admitted last year were black, 20 percent were white, 25 percent Latino and 49 percent Asian.

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