College Minority Admissions Drop

Effect of affirmative-action rollback even greater than expected

Both supporters and foes of affirmative action have long argued that the imposition of race-blind university admission policies would alter the look of American campuses. Now the first evidence is in, and the results are even more dramatic than many predicted.

The admission of the first post-affirmative-action classes at prestigious law schools in California and Texas shows a steep decline in the number of minority students. In fact, the number of African-Americans offered admission in law schools at the University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley dropped by 80 percent.

The numbers are intensifying the debate over the movement to roll back race- and gender-based preferences nationwide.

University of California graduate schools are the first to carry out a 1985 decision by the state Board of Regents to ban affirmative action in admissions. Last fall California voters passed Proposition 209, barring such policies in public higher education, employment, and business contracting. The California measure is now a model for similar moves in other states and in Congress.

"This is what a 209 world is going to look like - a legal profession with virtually no representation for the African-American, Latino, and native American communities," says Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a 209 critic.

While not cheering the lack of diversity, opponents of affirmative action see the statistics as proof of how pervasive race was in past admissions. "It's an utterly predictable result," says Terry Pell, a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights.

Officials of the University of California law schools, who had strongly opposed the decision to end affirmative action, decried the move on Wednesday, when the numbers were released.

"This dramatic decline in the number of offers of admission made to non-Asian minority applications is precisely what we feared would result from the elimination of affirmative action," says Herma Hill Kay, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, law school.

The loss of racial and ethnic diversity is undeniable. Compared with 1996 admissions, UCLA has admitted 80 percent fewer blacks, 32 percent fewer Hispanics, and 60 percent fewer native Americans, while admissions of whites and Asians is rising. At Berkeley's Boalt Hall, which boasted one of the most diverse student bodies of top law schools, minority admissions have dropped from 20 percent to 7 percent. These results are mirrored at the University of Texas law school, which stopped using race-based criteria following a federal court decision last year.

Critics blame the schools for failing to develop alternatives to race in admissions criteria and having to rely solely on grades and scores in the law-school admissions test. "They've been using racial set-asides all along, and racial set-asides bring in large numbers of minority students who would not otherwise be admitted under a numbers-only admissions approach," says Mr. Pell.

Law schools, unlike many other graduate disciplines, rely heavily on test scores and grades. According to a recently published study of law-school applications, a solely numbers-based admissions policy would substantially reduce minority entrants nationwide. Author Linda Wightman, a former official at the Law School Admissions Council, estimates that of the 3,485 blacks accepted by more than 160 law schools, only 687 would have been admitted based on tests and grades.

But such test scores are not an accurate measure of how well these students will do, argues the ACLU's Mr. Rosenbaum. Minorities admitted under the affirmative-action criteria did equally well when it came to graduation and passage of bar exams, the same study found.

And contrary to the criticism, the two California schools did make changes in their admissions policies in an attempt to create diversity based on nonracial criteria. UCLA tried to use economic and social deprivation as factors, believing this would help minority students.

Instead it yielded more admissions of poor whites and immigrants from places like Russia and Vietnam. It also led to the turning down of blacks and Latinos who had good numbers but were from wealthier families. "We have a very diverse class but not the same diversity," says Michael Rappaport, dean of admissions at the UCLA law school.

Anticipating that result, Berkeley tried to reduce the weight given to test scores and to expand the importance of personal histories. But this produced results only slightly better than looking purely at the numbers, says dean Kay.

University officials are worried not only by the lower admissions numbers but also by a drop in minority applicants, a phenomenon visible also at the University of Texas. Moreover, minority students are being more aggressively recruited by out-of-state and private universities than can offer affirmative-action-based aid and other incentives.

The problem may be compounded in the fall as minorities who are admitted choose to go elsewhere. "The numbers will not encourage minority students to come to a place where there are few students like themselves," says Mr. Kay.

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