UC System Admits Most Diverse Freshmen Class Ever

Students at Sather Gate at the University of California-Berkeley (© 2017 UC Regents, all rights reserved)

The University of California (UC) system admitted a record number of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups this year, but the rates of Latinx and Black students still fall slightly short of aligning with the general population in California.

Students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprised 43% of admitted California freshmen—the highest proportion of an incoming undergraduate class and the greatest number in UC history at 36,462, the UC Office of the President recently announced. Latinx students represented the largest minority group, at 37%, of admitted California freshmen. African American students made up only 5% of university-wide admits. UC Merced held the highest percentage of admitted students from underrepresented groups at 57%, including 50% of freshmen identifying as Chicano/Latino and 7% identifying as African American.

Overall, California’s Black or African American population is 6.5% and Hispanic or Latino is 39.4% of the general population, according to Census data.

“For us, I think what’s exciting is that as a public institution, we’re always trying to reflect the state of California’s general population,” Dunstin Noji, Director of Admissions at UC Merced, says. “Having all the different views of students from different areas of California with different backgrounds really adds to the vibrancy of our campus. It adds to the classroom experience, student life, and I think in some ways helps prepares students for what life will be like outside of the institution.”


In an effort to remove barriers to higher education, the UC system decided last year to officially eliminate the SAT and ACT as requirements for admission.

“Having standardized tests not potentially be a barrier for students, I think that’s huge,” Noji says. “It’s certainly opened up a whole new segment of students who are now considering and applying to UC’s and who otherwise might not have before because they didn’t think their test scores were good enough. I think that can be really positive. It might allow us to see a different type of applicant that we might not have seen in the past.”

But some argue that it’s too soon to tell whether or not removing standardized testing as an admissions component actually improves diversity. Tomás Monarrez, a Research Associate in the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute, highlights similarities between the removal of standardized testing in admissions with ‘Ban the Box’ policies in employment, which prevent employers from asking about applicants’ criminal history. Studies have shown that ‘Ban the Box’ policies may actually hurt Black and Hispanic applicants rather than help.

“In the absence of factual information, employers are using their bad, racist instinct more when making decisions,” Monarrez says about Ban the Box policies. “I think there’s a certain worry that if you have an admissions officer that doesn’t have a quantitative way of saying whether these kids are doing better than one another that they would lean on their stereotypes a little bit more when making [admissions] decisions, which could lead to bad outcomes.”


In 1996, California voted to pass Prop 209, which prohibits government institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity for public employment and education.

Studies have shown, however, that California’s decision to end affirmative action has actually made socioeconomic inequities worse by forcing underrepresented minority applicants into lower-quality public and private universities. Despite that evidence, public perception of affirmative action continues to view race and policy as a no-no. Last year, efforts to repeal Prop 209 in California failed—effectively keeping the ban of race-based affirmative action at California public universities. Many experts say that Prop 209 passed, in large part, due to campaigns that falsely aligned affirmative action with racist policy and sentiment.

“That was the messaging that they leaned on to make sure that Prop 209 was passed,” Shae Collins, Communications Manager at The Campaign for College Opportunity, says. “It’s not necessarily looking at the history of affirmative action, because we know that affirmative action has always been about ensuring that students who have been systemically and historically excluded are included.”

For organizations, such as The Campaign for College Opportunity, much of the work since the passing of Prop 209 in California has been about educating people around the myths of affirmative action and helping them understand the evidence of positive impact that affirmative action has had on underrepresented students. Despite the failed efforts to repeal Prop 209 last year, Collins says that this year’s UC admissions numbers demonstrate that progress is, slowly but surely, being made.

“Seeing these numbers from the UC [this year] was uplifting,” Collins says. “I think we have a lot of work to do to ensure that we have that representation and I think we have a lot of opportunities to get there.”

‘I think it really brings us back to the fact that anti-Black discrimination and structural racism has its own place in America.’

When it comes to outreach and recruitment, universities often differ in terms of where and who they are reaching out to. A 2019 study found that despite facing similar state funding and demographic trends, universities, such as UC Berkeley and UC Irvine, substantially differ in recruiting patterns with respect to out-of-state focus, income bias, and racial bias. At a school, like UC Merced, outreach and recruitments relies, in part, on ensuring that the university can reach the underrepresented communities.

“A lot of our college access partners, from the high schools to different non-profits that we work with, are certainly groups that we hope to work with more moving forward,” Noji, the admissions director at UC Merced, says. “We know that those agencies have the trusted community and the ability for us to get to places that we aren’t always able to get to through our traditional marketing and recruitment efforts. I think the earlier that we can get to students, the easier it is to help communicate the pathway to university.”

How a school, like UC Merced, versus how a school, like UC Berkeley, recruits and enrolls students is important. In his research, Monarrez looked at average representation of enrollment at both public and private colleges across the U.S. from 2009 to 2017. At more selective colleges, Black and Hispanic students are still largely underrepresented. At less selective colleges, Hispanic students have seen increased representation, while Black students have seen stagnation or no improvement in representation. Monarrez says that the UC system, as a whole, is making progress in diversifying its overall student body, but he worries that Black students may still largely be overlooked.

“In California, things are looking pretty good,” he says. “Maybe not in these top universities, but things seem to be improving in the last two decades. I worry, however, that that’s not the case for the Black population. I think it really brings us back to the fact that anti-Black discrimination and structural racism has its own place in America. I think that aspect needs to be addressed individually because the data is showing that it’s different from other racial inequality issues.”

With policies such as affirmative action no longer on the table in California, however, it may mean an even longer road to real, substantial change.

“We have all this talk about fixing racial inequality, and yet, we constrain ourselves to a set of solutions that don’t have anything to do with race,” Monarrez says. “Which I think a lot of the times will inherently lead to imperfect solutions to a racial problem if you can’t even use race to try and solve it.”


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