Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Senate leader ventures into UC admissions thicket

Students march during a protest against tuition increases at the University of California, Berkeley.
Students march during a protest against tuition increases at the University of California, Berkeley. Associated Press file

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León doesn’t mind bragging on himself. But at least he’s willing to go where many other politicians fear to tread.

For instance, as part of his 2016 agenda, he vows to get more low-income, minority kids into the California State University and, especially, the University of California – even if it means looking into some preference in admissions.

In a sit-down this week with The Bee’s editorial board, the first Latino to be Senate president pro tem since 1883 proudly said he’s a product of affirmative action, though he knows that’s a toxic phrase in politics. He also knows he’s on the opposite side from most California voters, 55 percent of whom passed Proposition 209 in 1996 to ban racial preferences in public university admissions, as well as government hiring and contracts.

De León, however, might find some ammunition in a study released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California on the state’s looming, dire shortage of college graduates. A college degree is becoming even more important to higher wages, but if current trends hold, California could find itself a staggering 1 million to 1.4 million short, according to projections updated to account for the recession and extended to 2030 to include the retirement of highly educated baby boomers.

While the study doesn’t go into detail on who those additional students would be, with California’s demographic trends, it’s pretty obvious that many will have to be non-white.

The study recommends several steps to boost the numbers of college grads. One is increasing the share of high school graduates eligible for CSU and UC – which would also improve access for low-income and other underrepresented groups. One accomplishment de León boasts about is adding 10,400 CSU admission slots this year by tweaking a middle-class scholarship program.

Now, de León says he wants to better understand how socioeconomic background is weighed in admission decisions.

It isn’t considered at the 23 CSU campuses, which attract plenty of disadvantaged and minority students anyway. CSU boasts that it has the most ethnically diverse student body system in the nation and that more than one-third of students are first generation in college.

But at the more competitive nine UCs, one of 14 admission factors is the level of academic accomplishment in light of “life experiences and special circumstances,” including low family income, being the first generation to attend college and “disadvantaged social or educational environment.”

For this fall, Asian students totaled 36 percent of students accepted, while Latino students made up nearly 30 percent and whites 25 percent. At the flagship campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA, the Asian numbers are higher and the Latino numbers are lower. For African American students, the numbers are abysmal – 4.3 percent of total admits, fewer than 2,700 in the entire UC system.

When you compare the admission numbers to California’s college-age population, it becomes clear that the issue is really the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos at UC campuses and the overrepresentation of Asians.

While de León – a housekeeper’s son who attended UC Santa Barbara – is calling for more diversity, he makes clear he isn’t talking about more well-off kids getting into UC just because they aren’t white. He wants to help poor minority students whose lives could be changed by going to college, even if it means taking slots away from out-of-state and international students whose higher tuition helps limit cost increases for California students.

As de León freely admits, he’s facing an uphill battle. In fact, you’d think he might be a little gun-shy about raising this issue.

He wasn’t Senate leader then, but the last time, it didn’t go so well. When Sen. Ed Hernandez proposed a constitutional amendment last year to repeal Prop. 209, it caused a huge rift among Democrats between Asian American and Latino legislators. The bill passed the Senate, but was held in the Assembly.

This is one of the few causes that could splinter the Democratic multiracial coalition and undermine de León’s standing. We’ll see how far he’s willing to go, but give him credit for taking the risk.

By the numbers

Freshman admission counts by race/ethnicity:

University of California, fall 2015

  • Asian American: 22,428, 36.3 percent
  • Latino: 18,280, 29.6 percent
  • White: 15,719, 25.4 percent
  • African American: 2,653, 4.3 percent
  • Native American: 402, 0.7 percent
  • Pacific Islander: 211, 0.3 percent

California State University, fall 2014

  • Latino: 160,001, 34.8 percent
  • White: 125,804, 27.3 percent
  • Asian American: 56,227, 12.2 percent
  • African American: 20,017, 4.3 percent
  • Pacific Islander: 1,943, 0.4 percent
  • Native American: 1,442, 0.3 percent

Sources: University of California, California State University