Former Dean Paul Bender of the ASU School of Law once said that racial preferences in admissions were necessary because law school classes would otherwise be exclusively white and Asian.
Prop. 107 will soon give Arizonans the opportunity to prohibit the state from “giving preferential treatment or discriminating against” persons on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender. Most Arizonans agree with this viewpoint. They believe, as did Martin Luther King Jr., that judging people on the “content of their character” rather than skin color is the ideal. “Affirmative action” was touted as a temporary stop-gap 50 years ago, but there is still no evidence today that it has actually improved the overall welfare of minorities.
But what if Bender is right? Surely fair-minded people would like to avoid the prospect of mono-racial classes at our publicly supported professional schools. Lea Marquez Peterson and Bill Holmes of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber even contend that Prop. 107 “will drastically affect the recruitment and retention of Hispanic and other ethnic minority students” at our public universities.
But will it? To answer the question, the Arizona Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights recently issued a report looking at the admissions rates for Hispanic students at “flagship” universities in states which have both large Hispanic populations and bans on racial preferences — California, Florida and Texas. (Disclosure note: I am the chairman of the Arizona Committee, with my own federal ID. I did not research or write the report. All of the data are public record.)
The methodology of the report is an intentionally severe test of discrimination bans. Proponents of the bans would argue that to the extent that minority students are less academically qualified, they are more likely to achieve success in second-tier schools, rather than at Cal-Berkeley or University of Texas at Austin, for example. They would also predict that admission rates would be more affected than graduation rates when racial preferences are banned, since those minority students admitted, if fewer in number, would be more academically qualified.
The report found that Hispanic admission patterns were fairly similar at these flagship universities. They generally experienced modest declines in Hispanic admissions in the first years after preference bans were instituted, but this effect diminished or even vanished with time.
At the University of Florida, the percentage of total admissions who were Hispanic fell the first year from 12.0 to 11.5 percent, then fluctuated between 11.5 and 12.9 percent over the next four years. The University of Texas saw the steepest decline in Hispanic admissions, from 14.5 to 12.1 percent, leveling off within five years to between 13.0 and 13.5 percent.
The University of California also saw a decline initially in Hispanic admissions from 15.1 to as low as 10.8 percent in the years following the ban in 1996. However by 2009, Hispanics represented 18 percent of all admissions, 20 percent higher than before the ban was enacted by California voters.
Based on this data, Mr. Bender’s scenario of minority admissions being devastated by Prop. 107 is fictitious.
Prop. 107 isn’t really “anti-equal opportunity” as its opponents claim. The reason is that racial preferences are the easy way out for those concerned about racial disparities. Buffing up minority admission rates to college gives the illusion that we are doing something constructive to boost economic opportunity for minorities. But the evidence is strong that future earning power is linked to actual academic skills, not unearned diplomas or admissions.
The more difficult, more effective option is to strengthen K-12 schools academically so that minority students learn more and are able to benefit from a quality higher education. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush and lawmakers responded to the ban on preferences by beefing up accountability and choice in the public schools.
The result was astounding improvement in achievement levels for minority students and stable college admissions rates with no need for preferences.
Prop. 107 is no threatening, revolutionary policy change. Its intent is to restore the American ideal, expressed in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the 1965 Civil Rights Act, of equality for all before the law. And our students will be better off for it.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (email@example.com) is a retired physician and former state senator.