Voices in Education

Equal Opportunity in Higher Education
Arizona is the latest state that voted to end affirmative action in higher education (and other public domains). Earlier this month, voters in Arizona passed Proposition 107, titled the Arizona Civil Rights Amendment, making it the fifth state banning the use of race in consideration for higher education admission through public referenda. Over the past fifteen years several ballot initiatives have surfaced in states across the country limiting the use of race in college admissions, and often in other areas such as public contracting. The Arizona proposition, similar to California’s Proposition 209 passed in 1996, may have important consequences for current and future students applying to and enrolling in the state’s more selective colleges and universities.

In Equal Opportunity in Higher Education researchers discuss the consequences of the end of affirmative action. Contributors to this volume, including policy makers, policy analysts, and academics, offer important insights into what the end of affirmative action in California did and did not do to patterns of student participation in higher education, and consider ways of moving forward to achieve broadly representative colleges and universities in the absence of affirmative action.

Conventional wisdom has maintained that the end of affirmative action in California only impacted enrollments at the two or three most competitive UC campuses. Contrary to this wisdom, contributors to the volume demonstrate that Proposition 209 led to a broader reshuffling of students across the state’s public and private colleges and universities. Other chapters in the volume suggest several different strategies for maintaining or increasing the presence of underrepresented minority students at competitive public college and universities in a post-affirmative action regime. These yield important lessons for the nation about the limits of legal constraints like those embodied in California’s Proposition 209, and race-blind strategies to enhance opportunity and access in higher education for historically disadvantaged groups of students.

Arizona’s Proposition 107, like other ‘race-blind’ measures supported by organizations including the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute, is predicated on the belief that race no longer matters in the United States. Today, a greater number of minority students are going to college than ever before. Despite this fact, disparities by race/ethnicity in college enrollments, postsecondary destinations, and degree attainment remain striking. Higher education may not have created these inequalities, but it should confront them head on in making decisions about eligibility, admission, and financial aid. Given the legal and political constraints under which many public institutions operate, the strategies endorsed by authors of this book are among the most promising paths forward. With persistent inequalities at the state’s most elite public higher education sector, it is crucial that researchers and policymakers continue to probe the sources and consequences of such disparities. Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: The Past and Future of California’s Proposition 209 reflects one such effort.

About the Author: Michal Kurlaender is associate professor of education at the University of California, Davis and the coeditor of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: The Past and Future of California’s Proposition 209.