Falling off the map

Falling off the map

Blame affirmative action's demise for black student declines

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 06/22/2006

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When confronted with the shocking revelation that black students have virtually disappeared from the incoming freshmen class at UCLA, former University of California regent Ward Connerly hotly denied that his relentless assault on affirmative action at the UC system had anything to do with it. Black students will make up barely 2 percent of the more than 4,000 freshmen at UCLA in the fall. That's less than 100 students. Two decades ago, black students made up nearly 10 percent of the incoming freshmen there.

The numbers are even more embarrassing at UC San Diego. Black students there will make up a microscopic 1 percent of the new freshmen class.

Connerly and other affirmative action opponents blame the plunge on bad teachers, bad schools and low student achievement at inner city schools. Or they say that more black students simply choose to go to historically black colleges. That's true, in part. And sharp cutbacks in financial aid, laggard recruiting programs and rigid reliance on test scores have chilled admission of black students at some schools.

Then there's the added problem of keeping black students on the campus, even after they're admitted. Federal figures report that only 39 percent of blacks get their degrees. That's compared to 57 percent for white students and 44 percent for Latinos. A 2004 Education Trust report found that a quarter of schools have gaps between whites and blacks of 20 points or more.

But the undeniable fact is that in the decade since Connerly whip-lashed California voters into voting for a ban on affirmative action at UC schools, the number of black students has free-fallen at most of those universities, as well as at other schools nationally. That plunge was instant. Only half the number of black students were admitted to UC Berkeley the year after the ban was enacted. There were similar drops at the other UC schools.

The pitiful plight of black students has been repeated at a number of the nation's top public universities. They include the University of Michigan, Penn State University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Minnesota, Ohio State University and, for a time, UC Berkeley. Black freshmen enrollment has dropped 20 to 30 percent at these schools.

This erosion at these schools is even more galling since in years past they were beacons of educational opportunity for black students. They produced some of America's best and brightest black alums, who gained notoriety in sports, politics, business and the professions. UCLA, which has drawn the greatest fire for the fractional number of black freshmen, counts among its grads such legends as Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche and Tom Bradley.

The student plunge has touched off much hand-wringing, head-scratching and even faint protest by administrators, who say they are doing everything they can to bump up the numbers. Student protests forced UCLA administrators to declare the fall-off a crisis and publicly pledge to undertake an aggressive drive to get more black students. The University of Chicago, which also drew fire a couple of years ago for a drop in black students, launched a crash recruitment drive and expanded the admission criteria for black students. That sharply bumped up the number of new students the next year.

But Connerly and affirmative action opponents see no doom-and-gloom scenario in the drops. They counter that the number of black students has actually crept up in the past decade, and without the need for any preferential boosts. Some schools — and that includes Berkeley — have increased the number of new black students in recent years. But the increase only looks good because the earlier numbers were so dismal.

Take the University of Texas. When a court scrapped its affirmative action program in 1996, the number of black students entering the university dropped. But in the last few years, more black students have been admitted to the university. That's because school officials implemented a trade-off program that some critics blast as a disguised affirmative action program that guarantees admission to high school seniors who graduate in the upper 10 percent of their class. That insures university admission to many students from predominantly black high schools in the state. That markedly boosted their numbers.

The University of Michigan, on the other hand, has been stuck in reverse since the Supreme Court in 2003 nixed the school program that assigned extra admission points to minority students. The drop-off was instant. Black student enrollment plummeted more than 30 percent from 2001. While some students who had considered attending the university prior to the court decision enrolled at other schools, the decision wreaked havoc on the admission process.

And that hasn't changed. In a 2004 survey of black college enrollment, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that blacks were still underrepresented at nearly all of the country's top-ranked universities. At some schools they were virtually non-existent. They made up more than 10 percent of the total enrollment at just two of the 50 universities in the survey.

Connerly is right when he protests that total blame for the vanishing of new black students at UCLA and other schools should not be heaped on the gutting of affirmative action programs. But demolishing those programs did much to make black enrollment disappear. UCLA officials, and those at other top universities, now must do all they can to make black students reappear.

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