WASHINGTON – Critics worried that the Supreme Court’s decision this week, upholding Michigan’s ban on race as a factor in university admissions, could hurt minority enrollment in other states with similar bans – like Arizona.
But while some states have seen drops in minority enrollment, Arizona’s public universities have seen a steady increase in those numbers, a trend that began before voters approved Proposition 107 in 2010 and has continued since.
Minorities made up 44.4 percent of undergraduates at the University of Arizona in fall 2013 and 36.4 percent at Northern Arizona University. They made up 39.1 percent of undergrads at Arizona State University in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers were available.
Those numbers represented increases of 4 to 7 percentage points per campus since 2010.
“I’m very proud of how the three” universities have performed, said Kent Hopkins, vice provost of enrollment management at ASU. “The affirmative action ban really does not impact our board of regents.”
One reason for that could be because the university system never considered race in admissions decisions, even before voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved a ban on “preferential treatment or discrimination” in public institutions.
University officials originally worried that the ban would create an unwelcoming reputation for Arizona colleges, but that has not been the case.
Sharon Keeler, director of media relations at ASU, said that since the voter-approved ban, the university has emphasized its “core value … that every student who is academically qualified should have the opportunity to get a college education.”
Keeler said the university’s persistence at keeping the campus diverse is a large factor in why minority numbers continue to rise.
“People that really value diversity, this is where they want to come,” she said.
The Rev. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, agreed that minority enrollment is rising. He attributed it to university officials getting more involved with minority communities.
“I give the credit to the leadership and what they’re doing in the community,” Tillman said. “We have leaders in Arizona in our major colleges that are very, very involved.”
But Tillman said that Arizona’s success does not mean that the consideration of racial and ethnic backgrounds should be banned when admitting students. Problems still exist, he said, and race should be considered to help keep universities diverse and admissions fair.
“If it (admissions) was fair across the board, then no problem,” but minority students do face an unfair disadvantage, said Tillman. “I think they should take the ban away … It’s kind of a hypocrisy.”
Michigan and six other states have laws that prohibit universities from admitting students based on racial or ethnic backgrounds. And some saw an immediate drop in minority enrollment at state universities after their bans passed, according to published reports.
In California, which became the first state to eliminate race-based preferential treatment in college admissions in 1996, minority enrollment in state universities initially plummeted, said Ward Connerly, president of American Civil Rights Institute.
But Connerly, whose organization was behind the voter-approved ban in California, said that after a few years “the numbers began to stabilize.”
He said one reason for the fluctuations might be that California universities are more selective than Arizona universities. So the racial-preference system might have forced colleges in California to admit students who were not qualified for the university.
“Some players can play in the big leagues, some can play in the minor leagues,” Connerly said. “When you take race into account, you’re admitting students into one team who” cannot compete.
Keeler agreed that Arizona’s high acceptance rates have helped ASU be more successful at improving minority enrollment. ASU specifically accepts anyone who qualifies academically, with no racial preferential treatment.
“All students who academically qualify who come to the university are admitted in terms of Arizona students,” she said.