A student checks his cellphone at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in this photo from February.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
The University of California Board of Regents’ unanimous vote last week to stop requiring admission seekers to take the SAT or ACT and seek to have UC come up with its own test by fall 2025 was a landmark moment. It’s the biggest triumph yet for those who argue these standardized tests are either biased against poor families who can’t afford test prep classes or racist or both.
The disadvantages that standardized tests create for minorities are a common theme of those in the progressive community who believe white privilege or the lack of it is a dominant factor in determining whether people lead successful lives.
But while there are powerful reasons to believe that white privilege helps those who are borne into prosperous families that haven’t had to fight generations of structural racism, the enrollment numbers at UC’s 10 campuses don’t reflect this. This is why UC’s decision to break with historic norms is potentially a much bigger deal than it may now seem.
The college admissions process is essentially a zero-sum game. If one group gets more admissions, it is at the cost of another group.
And there is only one group that is far overrepresented in the UC system as a percentage of state population and K-12 enrollment, and it’s not whites. It’s Asian Americans, who have much better test scores and GPAs than any other race or ethnic group. And there is only one group that is far underrepresented: Hispanic Americans.
According to a 2019 Census Bureau estimate and official state statistics from 2019, Asian Americans made up 15.3% of the state population and 9.3% of K-12 students but were 33.5% of UC’s total 226,125 undergraduate students. Hispanic Americans were 39.3% of the state population and 54.6% of K-12 students but made up 24.8% of UC undergrads. White Americans were 36.8% of the state population and 22.9% of K-12 students but made up 21.4% of UC undergrads. African Americans were 6.5% of the state population and 5.4% of K-12 students but made up 4.1% of UC undergrads. These numbers don’t include any of the 29,754 international undergrads, who were primarily Asian nationals.
So when UC President Janet Napolitano, UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez and campus officials bemoan the lack of diversity in their student bodies, most people translate that as too many whites and not enough Hispanics and African Americans. But what they are actually griping about is an admission process in which Asian American students — 1/11th of the K-12 cohort — get 1/3 of UC undergrad spots, and Hispanic students — more than half of K-12 enrollees — are 1/4 of UC undergrads.
Given Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that banned affirmative action in state agencies, the UC admissions issue couldn’t be more fraught.
Yet it’s hardly a leap to wonder if UC will seek an admissions process like those seen at Harvard and other prestigious private colleges that effectively caps Asian American enrollment at about 20%. Last October, a federal judge ruled that Harvard’s policy was acceptable under the U.S. Constitution.
If UC does something alone those lines while somehow skirting Proposition 209, the fallout could be broad.
Would the perception that Hispanic students were getting in ahead of Asians with better high school records fracture the multicultural coalition that has been a dominant force in California and other blue states? In 2018, Vox writer Alvin Chang implored his fellow Asian Americans not to think this way because white conservatives with ugly motives — including the Trump administration’s Justice Department — were using this argument to try to dismantle affirmative action for historically disadvantaged groups. Don’t be “racial mascots,” Chang wrote
But what happened in the California Legislature in 2014 suggests that many Asian Americans don’t see espousing concerns about bias in college admission as about helping white conservatives win their mean-spirited crusade. They see it as about protecting their kids. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, proposed an amendment to the California Constitution that would have scrapped Proposition 209. The proposal died after state Sens. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, and Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, came out against it after being lobbied by Asian American groups who warned the amendment would hurt Asian students.
If UC’s changes in admissions come to be seen as a subtle way to achieve Hernandez’s goal, these same groups will come out in force.
And if you think tribalism in California couldn’t get any more acute than it already is, watch out. There could soon be a new front in the culture wars.
Source: Chris Reed