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Inflammatory Charges…and Reality

by  David A. Lehrer

February 16, 2012 | 5:29 pm

A sweatshirt with the University of California, Los Angeles trademark. Photo by Wikipedia/Alton

Rarely do two events juxtapose themselves so perfectly so that the contrast between the right path and error is transparently clear.

Last week, news media reported on studies that found a growing education gap between rich and poor. Dramatic data indicate that

the gap in achievement between the children of the rich and poor has increased by some 40% since the 1960

s. Two studies reveal that parental income may be the single most significant determinant of educational success.  The test score imbalance between rich and poor kids has grown as has the gap in college completion rates (which has increased by about 50% since the late 1980s). Former Harvard president Lawrence Sommers describes this divide as “the most serious domestic problem in the United States today.”

This gap in achievement far surpasses the much discussed black white achievement testing gap; in fact, it doubles that differential.

That was last week.

This week, in what seems like an all-too-frequent ritual, yet another case was litigated to declare California’s now nearly 16-year-old Proposition 209, barring the University of California from granting preferences on the basis of race, unconstitutional. Challenges to 209 have failed in federal court on other occasions and have twice been unsuccessful before the California Supreme Court.

The arguments now before the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals are similar to those that have been proffered to federal courts and before the California Supreme Court—-allegations that the failure to re-impose racial and ethnic preferences (the status quo ante Proposition 209) will continue a “state commanded apartheid system….a new Jim Crow” (actual remarks by one of the attorneys arguing in Monday’s Ninth Circuit session).

It might be useful to examine what this so-called “apartheid system” is really like and why the policies that the plaintiffs advocate threaten to undermine the most vigorous programs in the country aimed at promoting diversity, of the most needed kind, on campus.

Even a cursory review of the data on admissions to the University of California reveals that, despite the assertions of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the presence of minorities in the University of California has increased substantially from what it was in 1996—-the last year of racial/ethnic preferences. That means that minorities, without the benefit of preferential treatment, are a larger presence in the university system than they ever were.

The number of minority admissions to the University of California in 2010 — without the benefit of preferences — exceeds that of 1996, in absolute numbers and, more important, as a percentage of all “admits.”

Latino students have gone from 15.4% (5,744 students) of freshman undergraduate admissions in 1996 to 23% (14,081) in 2010 (a 145% increase). Asian students have gone from 29.8% (11,085) of the freshman admits to 37.47% (22,877). Native American admits have declined slightly, from 0.9% to 0.8%, but their absolute number increased, from 360 to 531. African American admits have gone from 4% (1,628) to 4.2% (2,624), a modest gain in percentage but a 61% increase in numbers of freshmen admitted.

The only major category that declined in percentage terms was whites, who went from 44% (16,465) of the freshmen admits to 34% (20,807). If this is “Jim Crow” at work there are some pretty dumb bigots implementing the plan.

The arguments against 209 are nothing new (although the latest wrinkle is to attack the admittedly smaller numbers of minorities at the UC’s flagship and most competitive schools—-Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego).  They seem particularly stale at a time when the evidence, as widely reported last week, is clear that socio-economic status, not race or ethnicity, is the far greater impediment to the academic success of the disadvantaged.

Presently, the UCs consider the socio-economic status of their applicants, believing that the extent to which an applicant has overcome hurdles of economic disadvantage (e.g. Pell Grant eligible students come from families earning approximately $60,000 per year or less) will be a measure of their ability to achieve success as a college student.

As a result of those efforts, the two most “economically diverse” (measured by Pell Grant eligible students) top tier universities in the country, are UCLA at 37% and UC Berkeley at 36%. As a comparison, Harvard is at 17%, Duke at 13%, Princeton at 11% and a comparably large public university, Ohio State, was at 17.8% in 2008.

It is ironic then that the University of California, which has made a concerted and successful effort to seek out and admit students who, because of socio-economic disadvantage (independent of race, ethnicity or national origin), need a leg up, is the subject of inflammatory accusations of bigotry and racism.

There is some irony as well, that neither the University itself nor the governor are vigorously contesting this lawsuit; apparently, simply following numbers and preferences is easier than the challenges of a merit-based system that involves a serious examination of potential for success.

To be truly concerned about equality of opportunity in our society is to be supportive of aggressive policies to identify and recruit the disadvantaged—-no matter their race or ethnicity. This is precisely what the UC is doing better than anyone else in the country. To revert to a crude system where race and ethnicity are the determinants of access (pre-209)—-independent of socio-economic status—-would undo a decade and half of work by the UC and would re-inject historically divisive considerations where they don’t belong.

Hopefully, the Ninth Circuit, like every court before it, will acknowledge the good sense of the voters of California and the wisdom of some of the folks at the University of California.

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