25 Years Later, What California’s Affirmative Action Ban Means for Higher Ed

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Dr. Stella Flores, associate professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Texas at AustinDr. Stella Flores, associate professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Texas at AustinThis year marks the 25th anniversary of California’s Proposition 209, which has effectively banned affirmative action in public institutions across the state since 1996, including at colleges and high schools.

Advocates last year tried and failed to repeal Prop 209, drawing attention to the state’s continued racial disparities in college access and completion despite an increasingly racially diverse population. A quarter of a century later, what has been the ban’s impact—and what comes next?

“Even though it’s been 25 years, Prop 209 is very much in conversations today,” said Dr. Eric Felix, assistant professor of administration, rehabilitation, and postsecondary education at San Diego State University, a public research university in California. “I had a meeting just last week about how race-conscious we can be when working with students in community colleges.”

Over the years, racial gaps have persisted and grown in California’s higher education institutions. In 1994 before Prop 209, the college admissions rate in the University of California (UC) system among Black applicants was six percentage points under the overall rate. Latinx applicants that same year were admitted above the average rate. But in 2019, the UC system admitted Black students at 16 percentage points lower than the overall rate. Latinx students were admitted six percentage points below that overall rate.

“To be frank, the impact of Prop 209 has been devastating on opportunities for students of color and families of color in California,” said Natalie Wheatfall-Lum, director of P-16 education policy at The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit research and advocacy group focused on educational equity in California.

These disparities are manifest in such areas as students getting into college, transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions, and then completing college.

“The bottom line is we should be seeing more progress, and we’re not,” said Dr. Stella Flores, an associate professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies affirmative action and college equity across the country. “California is one of the states doing the most poorly with Latino students. It has some good policies in place for college access among undocumented students. But the statewide ban is powerful enough to counter some of the progress that should be made given just how many Latinos are graduating high school and should be eligible for college.”

Prop 209 extends to employment as well, posing roadblocks in hiring more faculty of color who look like their students and, as studies repeatedly show, can strengthen student outcomes. Felix added that some higher education decision-makers in California can be confused with Prop 209, which can create a chilling effect on racial equity efforts that also does damage.

“Many colleges want to be more explicit about being race-conscious, especially when we see great disparities in transfer rates for Latinx and Black communities,” said Felix. “But they have to ask, ‘Wait, do we have the legal mandate to do this?’ That question is in a lot of colleagues’ heads. ‘Am I allowed to be race-conscious?’ It’s a weird position to be in when the state is asking you to disaggregate your data, then you find glaring race and gender equity gaps, but the state is also saying we can’t address them directly.”

Flores added that these challenges with equitable college access actually start in high school. She said that the Prop 209 affirmative action ban has made it harder for the state’s public higher education institutions to be explicit and race-conscious in their outreach to underrepresented students. And public high schools are also restricted by Prop 209.

“It’s not just about college admissions but high school preparation,” said Flores. “That includes access in high school to financial aid options for families and students. This touches the entire college pipeline. And in California, college tuition is not as high as in other states, but we still see disparities. So, this goes beyond a tuition story. This is a preparation and access story. You can have lower tuition, but if you still have these barriers to get in, then tuition isn’t enough.”

Even once underrepresented students get to college, Felix noted that Prop 209 can have a so-called chilling effect on explicit, race-conscious work, though there are some ways to make change within the boundaries of the proposition. For instance, he worked with one California community college campus that found almost 60% of Latinx students did not complete the forms needed to receive financial aid. Once that racial gap was seen in the data, the college created outreach programs specifically to connect with Latinx students and families to finish financial aid forms. 

“That’s one way where you can recognize in the data that there is a high level of incomplete financial aid applications and create a specific intervention,” said Felix. “To do that, we had to have conversations about what it means to be race-conscious about student retention and success given 209.”

Felix was active in last year’s effort to repeal Prop 209 through a ballot initiative known as Proposition 16. When that initiative failed, some advocates and experts like Felix were left discouraged. 

“For me, it was heartbreaking to see that we didn’t repeal 209 with 16,” said Felix. “209 kind of handcuffs us from really doing the work. You have this law on the books that limits you to actually address the racial equity gaps that we’re being asked to identify. But I think right now in this political climate, anything seen as race-conscious is more contentious than two years ago.”

Looking ahead, Felix and Flores expressed wariness that Prop 209 would be repealed at this time given national conversations on affirmative action and what Flores called “misguided narratives.” She referred to studies countering these narratives and showing that granting more equitable educational opportunities to more people uplifts the economy of an entire community.

“One key problem with these debates is that affirmative action is framed as a zero-sum game, that if you give people a chance, you’re taking it away from another person,” said Flores. “But what we’re not talking about is the centuries of racial inequities and racial privilege that we’ve had in this country. As long as we’re framing this as me-me-me versus you-you-you, we’re going to keep forgetting that education is a public good.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com.