Supporters of affirmative action breathed a nervous sigh of relief last week when the Supreme Court essentially punted on a case that some had feared would have led to a gutting of racial preferences in admissions to state universities. But even if the court had declared such preferences unconstitutional, it doesn’t follow that enrollment of minorities in higher education would have plummeted. Most colleges aren’t highly selective.
The political and legal debate about racial preferences is basically about a small sliver of highly competitive institutions. That was underlined by an article in The Times on Sunday about minority enrollment in California’s state universities, which are prohibited from engaging in racial preferences as the result of a 1996 ballot initiative known as Proposition 209.
The article noted that the percentage of African American freshmen at UCLA dropped from 7.1% cases in 1995 to 3.6% last fall. At UC Berkeley, African Americans made up 6.3% of freshmen in 1995 and 3.4% last fall. But across UC campuses overall, “the enrollment of blacks has nearly recovered to its levels before Proposition 209.”
Those statistics reminded me of an exchange during the oral arguments in the Texas case between Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. Alito questioned the Obama administration’s assertion that racial preferences at the University of Texas were necessary because the U.S. military relied on ROTC programs in assembling a racially diverse officer corps.