A full 15 years after the state banned affirmative action with Proposition 209, Gov. Jerry Brown has the chance to overturn the controversial statute with a new bill. The bill’s proponents are careful to emphasize that Senate Bill 185 will not completely overturn Proposition 209 — the wording of the bill allows the University of California and California State universities to merely “receive” data on an applicant’s racial background as long as no preference is given. But, as the UC Berkeley College Republicans were quick to point out in their controversial bake sale protest, it is hogwash. Universities, once they receive this information, will likely use it to strengthen the ethnic diversity of their incoming freshmen classes. Whether using race in admissions is a good move or not is still up for debate.
In the debate on equal opportunity, our Editorial Board falls on the side of equal opportunity. We believe that leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students is crucial to extending a shot at higher education for greater numbers of students. But this is not to say that our board unequivocally backs SB 185. While the bill has its merits — the bill’s writers recognized that after Prop. 209 passed, admissions for black and Latino students dipped — its exclusive focus on race, ethnicity and gender ignore an equally important category: socioeconomic background.
The effects of Proposition 209 have been mixed. Consequential changes in the racial makeup on University of California campuses have varied — while the Asian population has dramatically risen, the black and Latino populations have dropped. Fierce opponents of the bill have denounced the systemwide admission process of judging each student by the same admission bar, no matter the economic background, because it allegedly perpetuates a racially tiered society.
We agree. Different backgrounds shape opportunities. Socioeconomic background is especially important — more importantly, it is not necessarily dependent on race. Considered alone, the economic background of a student can adversely affect their SAT scores, according to “Colleges urged to use socioeconomic affirmative action,” a June 16 article in USA Today. The gap can be as great as 784 SAT points between the wealthiest and the most disadvantaged students. Colleges can offer all the financial aid they want, but until they actively admit lower-income students on a broader admissions matrix, socially and economically disadvantaged students will continue to be concentrated in the least-selective schools.
Undoubtedly, Senate Bill 185 is a contentious issue, if the Sept. 27 Berkeley College Republican bake sale is any indication. Still, no matter what the main defining factor in college admissions ends up being, equal opportunity must be provided to level the playing field for disadvantaged students. The bill’s author ought to reconsider the bill’s focus to center around a student’s economic background — not just their race, ethnicity or gender.