Yale’s efforts to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity in the student body may get a small boost from an unusual source: voters in California, Michigan and, in 2008, potentially a handful of other states.
States that have enacted constitutional amendments banning the use of racial preferences in public college admissions have seen acceptance rates for minority applicants go down. As more states consider such measures, civil rights advocates said, private colleges may inherit those students who can no longer get into public schools, or who no longer want to attend public schools with increasingly homogenous student bodies. But the amendments could also be a sign of a growing conservative influence on all spheres of higher education, they said.
California passed its amendment, Proposition 209, in 1996 by a popular vote of 54 percent. Michigan followed suit in 2006. And Ward Connerly, the black businessman and former University of California regent who has championed the amendments, is targeting at least four more states in the 2008 elections.
Private universities are not directly affected by these recent amendments, and while university officials in Berkeley and Ann Arbor struggle to recruit racially diverse students through more indirect methods, private universities reap the immediate benefits, experts said.
Donna Stern, national coordinator for Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), said the gap in racial diversity between public and private education could widen in the short term, especially given drops in diversity in California’s public colleges and universities since voters passed Proposition 209. In 2005, African-Americans composed only 3.2 percent of the student body at UCLA, a drop from 6.6 percent in 1995, which the university attributed to Proposition 209. The admit rate for black applicants was 25 to 30 percent less than that for white or Asian students.
In the long run, these amendments may be signs of a conservative movement that could eventually directly affect the diversity of private universities as well, Stern said.
“It certainly will be an ironic result to have public institutions that are funded by everyone’s taxes to be the most segregated,” she said. “I do think to the degree that there isn’t much resistance to this, that private institutions will follow … A shift in the political climate on civil rights will bleed into private education. I don’t think it’s necessarily a linear consequence, but I think that if this is allowed to continue, then private institutions will become whiter and more elite.”
But Yale Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the ripples might not make it to New Haven. Since Yale typically competes for applicants with only a small number of universities, almost all of which are private, the University’s applicants and admissions officers are insulated from the shock that the recent bans have had in California and Michigan.
“With respect to achieving diversity at the most competitive schools, I think the key is always to evaluate students as individuals, in light of whatever opportunities and challenges they have been presented,” he said. “Race and socioeconomic class are relevant aspects of an applicant’s context, and to the extent we do a good job overall of weighing context, we will sustain a diverse undergraduate body with exceptional talent and promise.”
As the push to end affirmative action builds momentum, the strength of its effects will grow and the ramifications may reach farther, experts said. Connerly — the president of the American Civil Rights Coalition, which has campaigned for the initiatives — has said that while 23 states allow for amendments by popular vote, only a critical mass must pass changes before it becomes clear the public will no longer tolerate affirmative action. The Coalition’s Director of Public Affairs Diane Schachterle said the coalition is currently considering seven potential states to target in 2008.
“We don’t even go there into private institutions,” Schachterle said. “We only deal with the government because we believe that our government collects taxes from each citizen and they should be treated equally, regardless of the color of their skin or their sex.”
Proposal 2, the ban in Michigan, went into effect in December, though civil rights groups are mounting legal challenges to the amendment’s interpretation. Rana Elmir, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said the ACLU has filed suit against the state of Michigan and the University of Michigan. They are arguing that Proposal 2 should be interpreted as allowing race as one of many factors in the admissions process, though preferences should not be given to minority applicants. If the proposal is not interpreted in this way, she said, consequences will spread beyond college education.
“The state will become a pariah for business, for education, if you have schools that do not consider race,” she said.
A second suit filed by BAMN and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights takes an even stronger stance than the ACLU, Stern said.
As the number of ballot initiatives grows, civil rights organizations are struggling to keep pace with the funding of Connerly’s organization.
“We are also reaching out to civil rights activists in those states to teach them the lessons we learned here in Michigan,” Sterns said. “The primary lesson being you must keep it off the ballot in the first place.”
While the letter of the law says universities cannot grant preferences based on race, some universities have eliminated it completely from their application processes. Michigan State University does not ask applicants about their racial background, Stern said, and the university’s decision to step beyond the law’s requirements shows how strong the conservative movement fueling these changes can be.
Alternatively, admissions officers may be eliminating mentions of race as a legal safeguard. Many affected universities now plan to focus on racial proxies, categories that suggest race but do not explicitly state it, admissions experts said.
But because large state universities cannot consider each individual applicant as closely as some of their private counterparts are able to, implementing diversity plans without quotas or explicit preferences can prove difficult. California universities, according to a recent story in the New York Times, have been trying to boost diversity by considering such factors as a student’s socioeconomic status, being the first in his or her family to attend college or speaking a language other than English at home. In Texas, which banned racial preferences in 1996 but now considers race as a factor, a “10 Percent Plan” admitted all students in the top 10 percent of their high school class in hopes of accepting more minorities.
Yale has strived over the past several years to increase the diversity of its student population. The Yale Ambassadors Program, which sends current undergraduates to recruit students in low-income areas, does not explicitly identify increasing racial diversity as one of its goals. But Matt Delgado ’09, who has served as an ambassador to two Southern California high schools with high minority populations, said the program likely does lead to a more racially diverse student body, as it encourages students to apply to Yale who might not otherwise. He said Proposition 209 might make those low-income students he speaks to in California more likely to consider a private college.
“I feel like private schools are always going to have that advantage,” he said. “Not only to get better minority applicants because they’ll have a better chance of getting in if they apply there, but also because they can create more diverse environments.”