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For Diversity, UC Uses Outreach

Alternatives Tried as Court Considers Affirmative Action

June 22, 2003|Peter Y. Hong and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

After the University of California's regents banned affirmative action in the mid-1990s, they were careful to declare support for diversity among students by other means.

One approach they embraced was outreach programs to attract those from disadvantaged backgrounds -- including advising high school students on admissions and flying prospective enrollees to campuses for visits. From 1998 through 2002, the state and UC nearly tripled their investment in such efforts, to $90 million.

With the U.S. Supreme Court considering whether universities can legally consider race in admissions, affirmative action opponents -- including the Bush administration -- have held up California's outreach efforts as one method of taking race off the books nationwide.

But, as the court prepares to deliver its decision this week, many California educators warn that outreach has proved no substitute for affirmative action.

Combined with other measures -- including a pledge by UC to admit the top 4% of students from every high school, poor or rich -- outreach at best has helped keep UC from losing ground in its enrollment of underrepresented minorities, statistics show. That frustrates even those who support outreach.

Winston Doby, the UC system's vice president for educational outreach, acknowledged that the university is "treading water."

"I don't think there's any real remedy for the removal of affirmative action," he said. "I don't see it as an either/or choice.... You need a combination of the two together to provide measurable success."

Although university officials point out that nearly 40% of Latino and African American freshmen in the UC system have participated in outreach programs, gauging the programs' success is difficult because UC admissions depend on so many factors.

Limited Benefits

William G. Tierney, the director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis and a researcher studying outreach programs for the UC president's office, said such programs provide only limited benefits.

"Many of the UC institutions can say they've reached the minority enrollment levels that they had before" Proposition 209, the 1996 statewide initiative banning affirmative action in public institutions, he said. "The reality is, of course, that the minority population in California has increased. So, in effect, we have lost ground."

UC Regent Ward Connerly, who led the bid to pass Proposition 209, points out "there's hardly any way to measure" the significance of outreach.

"A lot of the students we capture in these programs are students who would probably be going to college anyway, and all we're doing is helping them to become a little bit more understanding of what's required to get into the University of California, to make them a little bit more competitive."

Meanwhile, Connerly and others worry that outreach sometimes is a back-door way to provide minority preferences while staying within the letter of the law.

Outreach programs also are vulnerable to budget swings. This year, Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budget cuts are deep enough to reverse the expansion of outreach following the end of affirmative action.

Funding Cuts Proposed

According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, Davis' revised budget proposal would cut UC's outreach programs by 50% for the coming year. There are efforts in both the Senate and Assembly, however, to restore much or all of that money.

At UC, outreach has expanded significantly since the passage of Proposition 209. It used to be mostly a matter of sending undergraduates or university officials to certain high schools to advise students and counselors on how to gain admission to UC, one of the nation's most prestigious public university systems.

But outreach grew to include such things as providing training for elementary school teachers and holding special Saturday classes on UC campuses for high school students.

Some educators and counselors say they are convinced that outreach has at least helped to compensate for the loss of affirmative action.

Julie Neilson, a college counselor at Jordan High School in Watts, said two UCLA students regularly come to campus to advise students. "We get a lot more kids willing to apply to college because someone is walking them through" the application process, she said.

Neilson said parents at Jordan do not have the background to assist their children with applications -- only two parents of this year's senior class of 309 students are college graduates -- and, as the school's only college counselor, she would not be able to spend as much time with students without the two outreach workers.

Gail Kaufman, a UC Berkeley outreach official, also said that individual campuses in poor areas have benefited from outreach. At Kennedy High School in Richmond, UC outreach staff worked with the school to set up a college counseling center. The university and the high school converted a classroom into the full-time center, even filling the room with IKEA furniture to make it attractive to students.

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