1996 was a momentous year for higher education in the United States. In that year voters in California adopted Proposition 209, a ballot measure that amended the state constitution to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity. That same year, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in "Hopwood v. Texas" that it was unconstitutional for Texas public colleges and universities to use race as a condition of admission. The decisions in the two states reversed the trend among the nation’s major public universities to use affirmative action as a factor in the freshman admissions process. Prior to 1996, every public university in the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization of the nation’s leading research universities, had employed affirmative action to ensure diversity among its entering freshmen classes.
Three years later, in November, 1999, Governor Jeb Bush joined Florida with California and Texas, announcing his “One Florida” initiative to eliminate affirmative action in university admissions at the state universities. With the implementation of “One Florida,” three of the four largest states in the nation and the three with the largest high school and college student populations had rescinded affirmative action for the purpose of achieving racial and ethnic diversity. Only New York’s public universities, of the nation’s four largest higher education systems, continued to use affirmative action in its admission decisions.
This essay examines the impact these developments had on diversity in freshmen enrollment in California, Texas, and Florida. Thomas Espenslade and Chang Chung argued in 2005, “[E]liminating affirmative action would reduce acceptance rates for African American and Hispanic applicants by as much as one-half to two-thirds and have an equivalent impact on the proportion of underrepresented minority students in the admitted class. White applicants would benefit very little by removing racial and ethnic preferences; the White acceptance rate would increase by roughly 0.5 percentage points. Asian applicants would gain the most. They would occupy four out of every five seats created by accepting fewer African American and Hispanic students (p. 303-304).” Was this, in fact, the case for California, Florida, and Texas?
To determine the results, we selected the five universities in these states that were members of the AAU in 1990 - the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin), and the University of Florida (UF) – and followed freshmen enrollment patterns from that period to the entering freshmen class of 2005. We also examined state high school graduation rates in these three states and added a control group of universities to compare these five universities with five others that did not eliminate Affirmative Action in admissions.
Our conclusions underscore much of what Espenshade and Chung (2005) and others have argued, but they also point out other serious and substantive developments that threaten the success of American higher education and its contribution to the success of American society.