The California Assembly took a historic step by introducing Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, which would repeal Proposition 209 and permit public universities to consider race in admissions.
Since the enactment of Proposition 209, the University of California has undertaken extensive efforts to increase student diversity through race-neutral means. These efforts should be expanded, even if Proposition 209 is repealed, because they foster racial and socio-economic diversity among students.
To this end, California should enact an “Automatic Application and Admission” plan for the UC system. Automatic Application and Admission would increase diversity across race and class lines at all UC campuses, while raising graduation rates and future earnings for underrepresented students.
Under Automatic Application and Admission, every high school would be required to complete a free UC application and financial aid form for every senior in the top 15% of their class who completes a minimum set of course requirements.
Consistent with current policy, all students in the top 9% would be guaranteed admission to at least one UC campus, but under Automatic Application and Admission every campus would be required to admit and enroll a proportional share of these students. All students not offered admission to at least one UC campus would be guaranteed admission to the California State University of their choice, and guaranteed a transfer to at least one UC campus upon successfully completing two years of prescribed courses.
Automatic Application and Admission would address a number of weaknesses in existing UC admissions policies. Currently, the Eligibility in Local Context program guarantees admission to at least one UC campus to the top 9% of eligible students in each participating high school. However, students must still apply and most UC campuses are under no obligation to accept them.
Unsurprisingly, Eligibility in Local Context has had no effect on the number of applications to UC campuses by underrepresented minority students. Research has shown that many high-achieving, minority students do not apply to selective colleges because they are unsure whether they will be admitted and unaware that they may qualify for financial aid. Automatic Application and Admission eliminates both of these barriers for seniors in the top 15% of their class.
Even with an offer of admission and financial aid, many underrepresented students may not believe they belong at a competitive, public university or appreciate the benefits of attending. Under Automatic Application and Admission, it would also be easier to target underrepresented admits with outreach by students and alumni from their community, which has been shown to increase enrollment.
Another weakness of the Eligibility in Local Context program is that the most competitive UC campuses do not participate, leaving campuses like UC Merced to absorb eligible students.
Since 2011, ELC program-eligible students have received no admission advantage at seven of the nine UC campuses. In contrast, under Automatic Application and Admission each UC campus would be required to accept and enroll a proportional share of the 9% of students in their entering class and top 15% students, who complete two years at a CSU, in their transfer class.
As a result, Berkeley and UCLA would no longer be able to ignore these students. Of course, the top 9% students would still be allocated across the UC campuses according to the strength of their applications, and each campus would be free to decide whether to admit students in the 10% to 15% range.
Automatic Application and Admission would increase diversity and raise the graduation rates and future earnings of underrepresented students. Evidence shows that greater enrollment of underrepresented students in the UC system and at the more competitive campuses of Davis, Irvine and San Diego increased their graduation rates by 22 percentage points and, just a few years post-graduation, raised the earnings of students from the lowest-performing high schools by $19,000.
Now more than ever, public universities must be places of equal opportunity and advancement. Too many high-achieving, low-income students from underrepresented groups are discouraged from attending California’s best public universities. Whatever its other merits, the traditional approach to affirmative action cannot change this fact. An Automatic Application and Admission plan can.