Jeff Chiu, Associated Press
BERKELEY, Calif. — Fifteen years ago, California voters were asked: Should colleges consider a student's race when they decide who gets in and who doesn't?
With an emphatic "no," they made California the first state to ban the use of race and ethnicity in public university admissions, as well as hiring and contracting.
Since then, California's most selective public colleges and graduate schools have struggled to assemble student bodies that reflect the state's demographic mix.
Universities around the country could soon face the same challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to revisit the thorny issue of affirmative action less than a decade after it endorsed the use of race as a factor in college admissions.
The high court agreed in February to take up the case of a white woman who claims she was rejected by the University of Texas because of its race-conscious admissions policy. The justices are expected to hear arguments this fall.
College officials are worried today's more conservative court could limit or even ban the consideration of race in admissions decisions. A broad ruling could affect both public and private universities that practice affirmative action, a powerful tool for increasing campus diversity.
"If the decision is very broad and very hostile to affirmative action, the future of the rest of country may look very similar to California," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. "It would be very disruptive at many institutions."
The effects of California's ban, known as Proposition 209, are particularly evident at the world-renowned University of California, Berkeley campus, where the student body is highly diverse but hardly resembles the ethnic and racial fabric of the state.
With affirmative action outlawed, Asian American students have dominated admissions. The freshman class admitted to UC Berkeley this coming fall is 30 percent white and 46 percent Asian, according to newly released data. The share of admitted Asians is four times higher than their percentage in the state's K-12 public schools.
But traditionally underrepresented Hispanic and black students remain so. In a state where Latinos make up half the K-12 public school population, only 15 percent of the Berkeley students are Hispanic. And the freshman class is less than 4 percent African Americans, although they make up 7 percent of the K-12 students.
Junior Magali Flores, 20, said she experienced culture shock when she arrived on the Berkeley campus in 2009 after graduating from a predominantly Latino high school in Los Angeles.
Flores, one of five children of working-class parents from Mexico, said she feels the university can feel hostile to students of color, causing some to leave because they don't feel welcome at Berkeley.
"We want to see more of our people on campus," Flores said. "With diversity, more people would be tolerant and understanding of different ethnicities, different cultures."
UC Berkeley has tried to bolster diversity by expanding outreach to high schools in poor neighborhoods and considering applicants' achievements in light of the academic opportunities available to them.
But officials say it's hard to find large numbers of underrepresented minorities competitive enough for Berkeley, where only about one in five applicants are offered spots in the freshman class.
In addition, California's highest-achieving minority students are heavily recruited by top private colleges that practice affirmative action and offer scholarships to minorities, administrators say.
"It's frustrating," said Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor of student affairs at Berkeley. "Many times we lose them to elite privates that can actually take race into account when they admit students."
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