IN THE SPRING OF 1998, the fax machines at certain University of California campuses must have worked late into the night. Humming away, they pumped out press releases designed to create the impression of a racial crisis in higher education -- and they were quite effective in doing so. "Acceptance of Blacks, Latinos to UC Plunges" one Los Angeles Times headline screamed. For a few days, the new color-blind admissions policies of the University of California system permeated the national airwaves.
Many of the statements in the press were literally true. Under the newly implemented Proposition 209, which eliminated racial favoritism in admissions to state schools, Berkeley, the UC's flagship campus, had indeed extended fewer offers to minority applicants for seats in the Class of 2002 than in the previous year. In 1997, 58.6 percent of its freshman admissions went to students who had checked minority boxes on their applications -- primarily blacks, American Indians, Asian Americans and Hispanics. When Proposition 209 went into effect, that figure declined to 48.7 percent. Still, only a bare majority of seats went to whites.
Most of that decrease was attributable to blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics, who went from 23.1 percent of the freshman class to 10.4 percent. Since these were the groups that had benefited most from preferences, it was hardly surprising that their numbers would decrease when preferences were removed.
The press directed far less attention to other campuses like UC-Riverside and UC-Santa Cruz, both of which posted impressive gains in minority admissions. At Riverside, for example, Black and Latino student admissions shot up by 42 percent and 31 percent respectively. Santa Cruz's increases were less dazzling, but still notable.
And those campuses that reported mixed results received almost no attention at all. Evidently, mixed is boring and unlikely to sell newspapers, much less hold the attention of television viewers. For example, at UC-San Diego -- the third most selective campus in the University of California system -- black enrollment was down 19 percent, but the enrollment of some other "underrepresented" groups like Filipinos and Latinos actually went up by 10 percent and 23 percent. Few ever heard about it.
The message of the press coverage was clear: If California voters had only foreseen the devastating effects of Proposition 209, they would never have voted for it. It would have been unthinkable.
But the voters didn't share the media's professed astonishment. They knew that the advantage conferred on certain minority applicants had been anything but subtle. At UC-San Diego, for example, being black or Mexican-American had been worth an additional 300 points on a student's admissions score (the equivalent of 300 SAT points). Under Prop 209, some decline was inevitable.
Moreover, minority students who would have attended Berkeley in the past had not simply vanished. They had been admitted to somewhat less highly ranked campuses -- often UCLA or UCSD -- based on their academic record rather than their skin color. In turn, students who previously would have been admitted to UCLA or UCSD on a preference had been admitted to schools like Davis, Irvine, Santa Cruz, or Riverside -- somewhat less competitive schools, but nevertheless still part of the prestigious UC system, which caters only to the top 12.5 percent of California's high school graduates. The term "cascading" was coined to describe the phenomenon.
Racial-preference advocates use the term derisively, arguing that cascading is a disaster for minority students. The truth is quite the opposite; few changes in educational policy have been better news.
The reason should be obvious, but for some reason isn't to many. Despite what affirmative action zealots would have us believe, academic ability matters. Although some students will outperform their entering credentials and some students will underperform theirs, most students will perform in the range that their entering credentials (high school transcripts, SAT scores) predict.
At UCSD, for example, in the year before Prop 209's implementation, only one black student had a freshman-year GPA of 3.5 or better -- a single black honor student in a freshman class of 3,268. In contrast, 20 percent of the white students on campus had such a GPA.
Was this because there were no black students capable of doing honors work at UCSD? Of course not. The problem is that such students were usually at Harvard, Stanford, or Berkeley, where often they were not receiving honors. Nationwide, misguided affirmative action was creating the illusion that few black students could excel.
Proposition 209 has changed that at UCSD, where the performance of minority students has now improved dramatically. No longer are black honor students a rarity. Instead, a full 20 percent of the black freshmen could boast a GPA of 3.5 or better after their first year. That's higher than the rate for Asians (16 percent) and extremely close to the rate for whites in the same year (22 percent).
UCSD's academic performance experts who once bemoaned the performance gaps that were the direct result of affirmative action admissions are now quietly cracking open the champagne. Their most recent internal academic performance report announces that while overall performance has not changed, "underrepresented students admitted to UCSD in 1998 substantially outperformed their 1997 counterparts" and "the majority/minority performance gap observed in past studies was narrowed considerably."
"Narrowed" is an understatement. The report finds that for the first time since such studies have been done at the school, there are "no substantial GPA differences based on race/ethnicity." A discreet footnote makes it clear that the report's author knows exactly how this happened: 1998 was the first year of color-blind admissions.
The bottom of the class is also changing. Prior to Proposition 209, 15 percent of black students and 17 percent of American-Indian students were in academic jeopardy (defined as a GPA of less than 2.0), while only 4 percent of white students were. Since UCSD doesn't keep separate statistics for those minority students who need a preference in order to be admitted, it is impossible to say with precision how high the failure rate was for preference beneficiaries. But it was high. The proof is in the sudden improvement in minority failure rates when racial preferences were eliminated. The difference between racial groups has all but evaporated, with black and American Indian rates now standing at 6 percent. As a consequence, average GPAs have almost converged.
It's probably too soon to say that UCSD's academic climate has undergone a transformation. Right now UCSD is the beneficiary of Berkeley's compliance with Proposition 209. If Berkeley stops complying, thereby choking off the cascade, UCSD may feel compelled to alter its strategy. But if compliance with Proposition 209 continues, minority students at UCSD will never again find themselves on a campus where achieving academic success is considered "acting white" or "acting Asian." Education scholars like Signithia Fordham who accuse black honor students of "internalizing oppression" will have to eat their words.
Some will argue that UCSD has paid dearly for all this. But the facts suggest otherwise. The school had 12 fewer black freshmen this past year, forced as it was to reject students who did not meet the academic standards of the rest of the class. But it also had 7 fewer black students with a failing GPA at the end of the first year. Meanwhile, those 12 students probably attended a school where their chances of success were greater. That's good news, not bad.
Thanks to Proposition 209, student performance is no longer predictable on the basis of race, and the University of California campuses are on the road to racial comity. To be sure, the struggle isn't over. Continued compliance with Proposition 209 is by no means assured. Judging from the entering credentials of its students, for example, UCLA Medical School appears to be in open rebellion against the law. The gap between the least-credentialed white and Asian students and the least-credentialed black and Hispanic students there is too large to be accidental. And admissions officials candidly admit developing policies for Berkeley and UCLA undergraduates that they hope will recreate the pre-209 world -- a world in which white and Asian students are destined to excel while their minority counterparts struggle.
Will they resist the temptation? UCSD's experience should dampen enthusiasm for such counterproductive measures. If it doesn't, litigation surely will.
Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, co-chaired the Yes on Proposition 209 Campaign.