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Here's what happened after California banned affirmative action 25 years ago

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We turn to the Supreme Court's rejection of affirmative action today. That decision means many of the nation's top universities are likely to see an immediate drop in Black and Latino enrollment. As NPR's Adrian Florido reports, that's what happened in California after that state banned affirmative action 25 years ago.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: California knows all about what an affirmative action ban can mean for college campuses. When voters approved a ban that took effect in 1998, the impact at the state's top two public colleges was staggering.

ZACHARY BLEEMER: Enrollments at Berkeley and UCLA among Black and Hispanic students fell 40% immediately.

FLORIDO: Zachary Bleemer is a Princeton economist who's studied the ban's impacts on minority enrollment at University of California campuses. After Black and Latino numbers plummeted, the schools had to figure out how to get them back up using only race-neutral policies. It's been 25 years of trial and error.

BLEEMER: Experimenting with many different admissions policies.

FLORIDO: UC schools de-emphasized grades and test scores and began reviewing applicants more holistically. They stepped up recruitment in poorer communities that tend to be Black and Latino. They guaranteed spots to students who graduate in the top 9% of their high school classes.

BLEEMER: The goal of each of these policies was to replace race-based affirmative action by identifying disadvantaged students who are nevertheless going to succeed at these universities and admitting them.

FLORIDO: Through these race-neutral alternatives to race-based affirmative action, schools have been able slowly to regain much of the racial diversity they lost. But...

MITCHELL CHANG: It was hard. It was hard.

FLORIDO: Mitchell Chang is associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA, which recently enrolled its most racially diverse class since the ban took effect.

CHANG: There was no magic bullet. Some things worked better than other things. And this is also work that doesn't happen overnight.

FLORIDO: In fact, it's taken UCLA more than two decades to make up the lost ground. And still, Chang says, his school is not where it wants to be. It still enrolls far fewer Black and Latino students than their share of California high school graduates, a problem it didn't have before the affirmative action ban. So all these years later, it's still working to close that gap. The ban on race-conscious admissions had the biggest impact on Berkeley and UCLA, the state's two most selective public schools. Likewise, experts think that, across the country, it is similarly competitive universities that will be most affected by the Supreme Court's ruling. Many of these schools have been preparing, including Pomona College, a small, very selective university in Southern California. Gabrielle Starr is its president, and she says every student her admissions officers let in is highly qualified to be there. But being able to consider race has allowed them to ensure they also put together a diverse class.

GABRIELLE STARR: Having a campus that looks like the world in which our students will go on to live is really important, just as a bedrock value.

FLORIDO: As a private school, Pomona wasn't subject to California's affirmative action ban. It will be to the Supreme Court's ruling. Starr started worrying about a possible national ban a couple of years ago, as the Supreme Court solidified its conservative shift, so she started reaching out to schools like the UCs for guidance. She says it's going to take some time for Pomona College to figure out its next steps.

STARR: We're going to do our best.

FLORIDO: In the meantime, she fears her campus will become less racially diverse. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.