It was supposed to be about diversity and equal opportunity.
But rather than enriching learning environments and creating educational equity, affirmative action heightened existing racial tensions and thrust minority groups into the political spotlight.
The attack on affirmative action at Harvard University is the most recent case of embroiled frustration against a system intended to foster holistic and equitable admissions practices. Students for Fair Admissions alleged Harvard University’s use of race in admissions was discriminatory against Asian Americans. And while the case is currently up for Supreme Court review, this isn’t the first time affirmative action has faced legal scrutiny.
In 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ruled that UC Davis’ use of race quotas in its medical school admissions was unconstitutional, but didn’t rule against affirmative action entirely. In 1996, Proposition 209 banned California institutions – the UC included – from using affirmative action at all in employment or admissions.
But diversity’s demise had been a long time coming.
Despite its benefits, affirmative action remains a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. So while courts dispute its place in admissions, systemic issues fester under the surface. An admissions process that merely vows to account for race cannot change what is rotten at its core – a lack of institutional support for underrepresented students and a failure to consider applicants’ backgrounds in a meaningful way.
Let’s be clear – the UC does not take race into consideration in its admissions or utilize any affirmative action policies. But it is required to create student body populations reflective of California’s own diverse population, according to the state Master Plan for Higher Education.
Outreach efforts made in attempts to diversify campuses have clearly worked to an extent – the percentage of underrepresented minorities enrolled at the UC has increased by 11% in the past two decades.
However, a systemwide increase in underrepresented minority enrollment overlooks specific population statistics at every campus. Since Proposition 209’s passage, African American enrollment at UCLA has plummeted despite increased enrollment across the UC as a whole.
It seems as though the UC’s top schools are building even higher walls for admissions of some underrepresented communities. According to a 2016 report, a student said she feels standards for UC admissions have increased exponentially, thereby alienating most of the student population.
She’s not wrong. Many applicants vying for a spot at UCLA need a resume chock-full of AP classes, a near-perfect SAT score and leadership positions in various extracurricular activities.
Public school – yes. Made for the public? We’ll get back to you on that one.
UCLA can do all of the outreach it wants, but the university is not supporting the underrepresented students who come to it without the resources they need to succeed. African American students said they felt unsafe at several incidents that occurred in university apartments during fall quarter 2018. These students also have the lowest four-year graduation rates among other races at UCLA at 57.6%.
Maybe affirmative action isn’t the answer. Maybe strategic outreach isn’t either. Or perhaps they are all pieces of a larger puzzle. But in order to truly create equity and diversity among student populations, institutional effort to uplift students once they reach the university are needed – now more than ever.
And judging by today’s efforts, that intended diversity may never see daylight.