How to Admit 354 Black Students Using Class-Based Preferences Alone

From 2004 through 2006, UCLA’s main college, Letters and Sciences, admitted 211 African American students per year, on average.

In 2006, after a “crisis” involving a student protest that drew front-page attention from the Los Angeles Times, the university switched to a “holistic” system of admissions. During the next three years, 2007-09, the College increased its African American admissions to 354 per year.

In my book and in earlier essays of this series, I provide evidence showing that UCLA may have achieved that increase through a racially biased process, even though California’s Proposition 209 prevents the use of race in college admissions.

In this particular essay, however, I describe a strategy that would have allowed UCLA to achieve that same number--354 African American admits per year--through a strictly class-based preference system.

I show that such a strategy has side effects--namely, SAT scores drop significantly, and the numbers of Latino and Southeast Asian students rise significantly.  

The side effects help explain why UCLA officials, I believe, resorted to implicit racial preferences rather than a strictly class-based strategy. The strategy is also relevant to the recent Fisher v. University of Texas Supreme Court decision. According to that decision, if a university can achieve diversity strictly through class-based preferences, then it cannot use race-based preferences.

The first part of my proposed strategy requires UCLA to abandon the SAT exam completely and instead judge applicants strictly by their high school grade-point averages (GPAs).  

That may sound like a radical change. However, as I discuss in my book, UCLA has almost done that already: the weight that it places on SAT scores, relative to grades, is very low. And for some aspects of its admissions process, evidence suggests that it actually places a small negative weight on SAT scores. That is, for those aspects of the process, a student’s chances of being admitted actually go up when his or her SAT scores go down.

The second part of the strategy requires UCLA to use class-based affirmative action--heavily. Specifically, it would admit 50% of its applicants who have family incomes below $50,000 (that is, within that income category, it would admit the 50% who have the highest high school GPAs), while it would admit only 12.3% of all other applicants. If UCLA had adopted that strategy, it would have admitted the same number of total students that it actually admitted during 2007-09, and it would have admitted approximately 354 African Americans per year.

In my book, I show that other class-based devices, besides family income, could also have achieved a similar result. One device is the quality of the applicant’s high school. Another is parental education. For instance, suppose UCLA admitted the top 55% of its applicants for whom neither parent received a post-high-school degree, plus the top 10% of all other applicants. Then UCLA could have achieved the same result--approximately 354 African Americans per year, and total class sizes equal to the actual class sizes during 2007-09.

However, as I show in my book, no matter which particular class-based method would be chosen, certain side effects would appear. 

One is that the number of Latino and Southeast Asian students would rise.  During 2004-06, approximately 14% of the admitted class was Latino, and 8% of the class was Southeast Asian. If UCLA had used the above class-based strategy involving family incomes, then the Latino percentage would have increased to 21%, and the Southeast Asian percentage would have increased to 10%. If instead UCLA  had used strategies based on parental education or quality of the applicant’s high school, those numbers would have risen by even more. 

Another side effect is that average SAT scores among admitted students would have dropped by about 150 points with the income-based strategy, and by about 200 points with one of the other two strategies.

The above side effects, however, did not occur. That is, during 2007-09 SAT scores at UCLA remained approximately the same as they were during 2004-06.  Similarly, the percent of the class that was Latino or Southeast Asian remained about the same. The fact that these side effects did not occur is evidence that, despite some suggestions to the contrary, UCLA did not use a strictly class-based preference system to achieve higher African American enrollment during 2007-09. 

Recall that the above alternative strategy achieves 354 admitted black students per year. That number, however, would not give black students proportional representation. That is, while African Americans comprised 5.0% of the applicants to UCLA’s College of Letters and Sciences, the 354 number comprises only 3.8% of the total students admitted to the College. To ensure African Americans proportional representation, the College would need to admit approximately 467 black students per year.

As I discuss in my book, UCLA could achieve the latter number with the following, strictly-class-based strategy: (1) admit the top 69.4% of the applicants whose family income is below $50,000; (2) admit the top 4.6% of the other applicants; and (3) within those income categories, judge students strictly by high school GPAs--that is, ignore SAT scores. Other strategies—using parental income or the quality of the applicant’s high school--would similarly produce 467 black students per year using only class-based preferences.

Although the above strategy radically discriminates against middle- and upper-class applicants, that is true of many government programs. (Recall that UCLA is not private; it is part of the California state government.) For instance, food stamps, Section 8 housing, and Medicaid do not just discriminate against the middle and upper classes--they completely exclude them.

The point of the above exercise is to show that even under a very strong definition of diversity--proportional representation for black students--diversity can be achieved through a strictly class-based preference system, without resorting to race.

That point is especially important given the recent Fisher Supreme Court decision. In that case, the Court ruled that diversity at a university can indeed be called a “compelling interest”--and consequently it can be grounds for a university to violate the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

However, the Court also ruled that the compelling interest must be governed by “strict scrutiny.” In practical terms, that means that if it is possible for a university to achieve diversity without racial preferences, then it is forbidden from using racial preferences.

The above exercise shows that--at least according to the data from UCLA--a university can achieve diversity without resorting to racial preferences.

I believe that once researchers begin to examine more data, they will find that the same holds true at other U.S. universities. If I am right, then the Fisher decision means that--even in states not governed by a Proposition-209-like law--public universities are now banned from using racial preferences.


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