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As Supreme Court Considers Affirmative Action Decision, California Universities Weigh Tools To Increase Diversity

A sign reads  Mt. San Antonio College nestled in a bed of flowers.
Mt. San Antonio College is a community college in eastern L.A. County
(Courtesy Mt. San Antonio College)
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The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in two cases that involve affirmative action. A central question during arguments focused on the concept of diversity.

Both cases were brought by the group Students for Fair Admissions — one against Harvard, and the other against the University of North Carolina.

What Affirmative Action Is

Affirmative action is the practice of increasing diversity on campus by considering race in college admissions. California voters banned affirmative action in 1996, but universities here are finding other ways to increase diversity.

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A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t expected until later this year, but Justice Clarence Thomas, who makes up part of the conservative majority, made his skepticism clear.

“I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times and I don’t have a clue what it means,” Thomas said. “It seems to mean everything for everyone.”

The lawyer defending the University of North Carolina responded that diversity is good for the education of all involved because it adds various points of view and life experiences to the student body.

Alternative Routes To Diversity

While California’s public colleges and universities aren’t currently allowed to use affirmative action, the case will determine what tools public universities have available to increase diversity.

Advocates of diversity have pointed to standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT as a big hurdle for students of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. High scores on those tests, the advocates said, aligned with higher socio-economic status.

How do we take into account systemic racism that has influenced our students’ educational trajectory from birth to the time they go to community college and apply to transfer to a CSU or UC?
— Eric Felix, San Diego State University education researcher

In 2020, the University of California regents took the first step to stop using the scores from those tests for college admission.

But a year later, when incoming freshmen weren’t required to submit those test scores, UC enrollment of Black and Latino students remained largely unchanged. A UC Santa Cruz admissions administrator told EdSource the unchanged enrollment was no surprise.

Test scores were only one of 14 factors used for admission and there may be more systemic barriers to diversify university enrollment, such as students of color graduating high schools with large classes, without as many Advanced Placement classes, or one-on-one time with college counselors.

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The Role Of Community Colleges

Some observers say that if the court strikes down affirmative action, California’s community college transfer programscould be used to increase racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in the state.

“Community colleges are already an important source of students with diverse backgrounds,” said Jerry Lucido, a USC professor who studies enrollment trends. “This could become even more important” if the court strikes down affirmative action, he said.

The transfer population at CSU has been rising. It was 153,403 in 2017 and jumped to 164,799 in 2021. In the fall of 2021, 39% of Cal State’s undergrads began their studies at a community college.

Community colleges are already an important source of students with diverse backgrounds.
— Jerry Lucido, professor, USC

“At the CSU and the UC, the transfer policies are improving to be able to give more students of color opportunity to enter these campuses,” said San Diego State University researcher Eric Felix.

He and other researchers said a national ban on affirmative action won’t stop universities from seeking some kind of way to give students of color these admission opportunities, but that colleges need to be purposeful in considering how they help students of color overcome barriers to admission.

“How do we take into account systemic racism,” Felix said, “that has influenced our students’ educational trajectory from birth to the time they go to community college and apply to transfer to a CSU or UC?”

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.