California Schools Get Around an Affirmative Action Ban

California woos underclassmen from historically black colleges
Getty Images

For all its popularity among college applicants, the University of California never made much of an impression on Amber Brown. She attended math and science camp each summer, graduated with honors, and last year accepted a full academic scholarship to Jackson State University, a historically black college in Mississippi. UC “just wasn’t on my list,” says the college freshman. “But if they are looking to diversify, I’m going to take advantage of that.”

Brown is vying for one of 25 spots this summer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business reserved for underclassmen at historically black colleges. The new program is the university system’s latest attempt to increase the diversity of its applicant pool—and ultimately its student body. The idea is that if UC recruits at black schools, it will pull more African-Americans into its MBA programs without violating a state ban on racial preferences in college admissions.

After California barred affirmative action in 1996, freshman enrollment of blacks across the UC system fell, from 4.2 percent in the 1995-96 school year to 2.8 percent in 2004-05, UC says. By last fall, that figure had edged back up to 3.7 percent as the system’s 10 campuses have pursued strategies such as wooing lower-income students and those who are the first in their family to go to college, factors that tend to correlate with race. UC has joined with urban high schools to attract undergrads in much the same way it’s now looking for potential graduate students at black colleges. And UCLA and other schools have started working with groups such as the Urban League and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church to find prospective students. “To their credit, they are being creative in trying to promote racial diversity without resorting to racial preferences,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in New York.

Students in the upcoming pre-MBA program will spend two weeks at Haas this summer. Next summer the group will visit another UC campus as the program rotates annually among the system’s six B-schools. Participants will complete leadership exercises, meet with local executives, and possibly get internships with California employers. It is one of the most comprehensive efforts any graduate school has made to reach underclassmen at black colleges, says John Williams, dean of the division of business and economics at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. and filmmaker Spike Lee. “They are targeting freshmen, which isn’t something graduate schools usually do,” Williams says.

Students from any of the 105 schools considered to be historically black colleges were invited to apply, and Berkeley received nearly 200 applications from 37 schools. “This would give me a feel for the California system,” says Dorian Kandi, a Morehouse accounting major who was among the applicants. If the concept works for business schools, UC may expand it to law and other graduate programs, school officials say.

Such diversity strategies are grabbing more attention as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to reconsider the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions this fall. The University of Texas at Austin—the defendant in the Supreme Court case—guarantees admission to residents who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Since many Texas high schools are dominated by one ethnic group, the strategy helps ensure a more diverse student body. The UC system admits anyone in the top 9 percent of their high school class, but university officials say the method isn’t as effective in states such as California where minority students are more dispersed.

The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in December urged colleges to examine new kinds of diversity strategies, including partnerships with historically black colleges. But traditional affirmative action leads to admissions of more academically qualified students than strategies that use other factors as a proxy for race, says Brown University professor Glenn Loury. “Color-blind policies are less efficient at selecting the best students,” says Loury, who co-authored a 2007 report on the subject in the Journal of Law, Economics and Organization.

Efforts such as UC’s can raise the same questions as affirmative action, says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Falls Church (Va.) nonprofit opposed to racial preferences. “It depends on what your motive is,” Clegg says. “Are you targeting historically black colleges because you want to achieve a particular ethnic or racial background? Or do you feel they shouldn’t be overlooked because they are a good source of well-qualified students?”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.