What happens when states ban affirmative action?

New research finds that states that banned affirmative action have seen a long-term decline in the share of Black, Latine, and Native American students being admitted to and enrolled at their public universities. According to the study, conducted by Mark Long at the University of Washington and Nicole Bateman at the Brookings Institution, alternative policies designed to increase representation have proven inadequate.

“Alternative policies and administrative decisions have, so far, been unable to fully replace race-based affirmative action,” Long, a professor of public policy and governance, told Inside Higher Ed. “The very slow rate of progress in these underlying conditions is surprising and concerning.”

Widening representation gaps

To explore the long-term implications of banning affirmative action, the researchers studied enrollment at 19 public universities in states that adopted affirmative-action bans early, like Florida and California, and those that joined later, like Michigan, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.

On average, in the year prior to a state’s affirmative action ban, the share of underrepresented students enrolled in college was 15.7 percentage points lower than their representation among that state’s high school graduates. The gap then widened, on average, to 16.8 percentage points the year after the ban was set, and then further to 17.9 percentage points. “The trends are especially notable in that demographic trends have added to the supply of underrepresented minority students in the states,” writes Inside Higher Ed.

UC-Berkeley case study shows limited impact of alternative policies

Noting that many states have banned race-based affirmative action under the assumption that universities could find better ways to increase the representation of Black, Latine, and Native American students, the researchers explored how that has played out in California—and at University of California-Berkeley specifically. California since 1999 has had a policy that aims to diversify college campuses by automatically admitting the top X percent (the exact percentage has shifted over time) of students from each high school in its state. The UC system also initiated a guarantee to cover tuition for undergraduate students whose family income is less than $80,000.

The study found that at UC-Berkeley, the underrepresentation gap before the ban on affirmative action was 14.9 percentage points. The year after the ban, it widened to 24.9 percentage points and was 34.4 percentage points by 2015. The trend, the researchers write, was “repeated across many of the universities we included in our study.”

A call to close the gap

The researchers call on university administrators to ensure their campuses “truly reflec[t] the racial and ethnic composition of their state’s high school graduates.” They add that state policymakers will be essential partners in achieving that goal, given how many economic, social, and educational factors are exacerbating students’ underrepresentation at colleges and universities.

For instance, Long told Inside Higher Ed that it would take more than 1,000 years for the Black-white gap in household income to close if the last two decades are any indication. “It’s clear that university leaders and state policy makers cannot rely on improvements in the underlying conditions to solve underrepresentation in higher education for many decades to come,” he stated.

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