This week, Joe R. Hicks and David A. Lehrer of Community Advocates, Inc. penned an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee arguing that University of California (UC) admissions policies are "working," especially for low-income students. To make this case, they used the recently released College Access Index produced by the NY Times, and pointed to the dominance of UC campuses in the rankings. For sure, there is something to be said for public universities that are not only enrolling low-income students, but graduating them at rates of 75% or higher within five years. However, the claims made by the authors that the UC system is leading the nation in providing a top-notch education to "the masses" and is the best educational system in the country to foster upward mobility for "the disadvantaged" require definitions of the "masses" and "disadvantaged" that exclude an important variable: race. And simply put, race matters.
To start, let's clarify these definitions and put "the masses" and "the disadvantaged" into their proper context.
The masses. Hicks and Lehrer are very generous with their definition of "the masses" being served by the UC system. First of all, it's important to acknowledge that the state of California mandates that only the top 12.5% of all California high school graduates are eligible for admission to the UC system, and they only end up enrolling about 7%. That is not the decision of the UC system to be that exclusive. Regardless, 7% is hardly the masses. Additionally, some campuses within the UC system, such as Berkeley and UCLA, are more selective than others with average GPAs for incoming freshmen well exceeding the 4.0 mark. Again, hardly the masses. And if that isn't enough to convince someone that the UC system isn't educating the masses, the UC system itself told the U.S. Supreme Court that it has been unable to reverse the decline in underrepresented minority student enrollment through race-neutral approaches. In fact, the UC cited in its amicus brief that for the most selective institutions, the enrollment for Black students was so low that it was likely that a Black student could find herself as the only Black student in nearly all of her classes. So if only a small percentage of students are eligible in the first place and, among those, underrepresented minority students are excluded more often than white students, I ask: Who are the masses, then?
The disadvantaged. No doubt about it, poverty is a significant barrier to achieving success in the U.S., regardless of race or ethnicity. However, research has shown that it is far easier for whites to move themselves up the economic ladder than it is for Blacks. Furthermore, if we are talking specifically about admission to the UC system--which uses SAT scores in their highly selective admissions process, a new study found that "race and ethnicity are now more important than either family income or parental education in accounting for test score differences." In other words, using SAT scores gives white students an unfair advantage, regardless of income level. So even among "the disadvantaged" that Hicks and Lehrer are referring to, people of color are still more disadvantaged than disadvantaged whites. Or in their own words, systems are in place that "prefer some disadvantaged over others based on immutable reasons of birth."
Jamelle Bouie said it best in his piece, "Race Still Matters": "To ignore this racial dimension of disadvantage--and the extent to which it shapes class lines and extends across them--is to entrench it." Not all students have equal access to the UC system and to say that California shouldn't focus on race in admissions is irresponsible at best, and harmful at worst. Hicks and Lehrer are right to say that UC campuses should be applauded for effectively educating low-income students, but even the UC system disagrees with Hicks and Lehrer's assertion that the admissions policies are working when it comes to diversity and equity. When it is increasingly difficult for qualified Black and Latino students, who are California's future, to find their spot at the UC, we have a problem and dealing with race head on is the solution.