University makes major push for diversity without considering race, gender in admissions

Past Supreme Court rulings have allowed colleges to consider race in their admissions processes and about 40 percent do. But the justices will soon revisit the issue and could overturn years of precedent. John Yang visited a university making a big push to improve diversity without the consideration of race or sex in the admissions process. It's part of our series, "Rethinking College."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Past Supreme Court rulings have allowed colleges to consider race in their admissions processes, and about 40 percent do, but the justices will revisit the issue later this month and could overturn years of precedent.

    John Yang recently visited a university that has been making a big push to improve diversity without the consideration of race or sex in the admissions process.

    He's back now with this report for our series Rethinking College.

  • John Yang:

    The University of California, Berkeley, accepted only about 11 percent of applicants for this year's freshman class, which is one of the most diverse in decades. Nearly 70 percent are U.S. students of color.

    The university is trying to boost the number students that it defines as underrepresented. That includes African Americans, Chicanx, Latinx, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Pacific Islanders. They have made some progress, but diversity number still have not returned to where they were in the 1990s.

    In 1996, California voters approved a ballot initiative, Proposition 209. It said that race, ethnicity and sex could not be used in hiring or admissions decisions at state institutions, including colleges and universities. The result? A dramatic drop in the number of underrepresented minority students.

    Carol Christ, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley: Proposition 209 had a devastating impact on diversity on the Berkeley campus. Our percentages of underrepresented minority students dropped by about 50 percent.

  • John Yang:

    Carol Christ is the Berkeley chancellor. Since she joined the faculty in 1970, she says she's seen the student body go from being largely white to being more diverse and inclusive in the 1990s.

  • Carol Christ:

    We live in a diverse world. Students learn more when they're going to school, when they're going to university with students that have different beliefs, that have different experiences than they do. So having a diverse student body is really important for learning.

    Also, to be a healthy state, it's important for opportunity, for every young man or woman in the state of California that they have an equal shot at going to a place like Berkeley or UCLA or U.C. San Diego.

  • John Yang:

    Studies have found that after the U.C. system could no longer consider race and ethnicity in admissions, the student body became less diverse, especially at Berkeley and UCLA, the two most selective schools.

    In 2018, a year after becoming chancellor, Christ launched an initiative to improve diversity. Part of it was the 2019 hiring of Olufemi Ogundele, who goes by Femi, as head of admissions.

    Olufemi Ogundele, Associate Vice Chancellor of Enrollment and Dean of Undergraduate Admission, University of California, Berkeley: It is critically important for us, as an institution, for me in my work and in my role, to make sure that we have equitable admissions processes.

  • John Yang:

    Ogundele, who previously worked on diversity in the admissions offices of other schools, including Stanford and Cornell, changed how his team judges applications.

  • Olufemi Ogundele:

    We are evaluating applicants and looking for excellence, and not perfection. That means that it allows us to take a look at students in the context of where they are coming from, everything from the curriculum that they are attempting, to the extracurricular activities that are available to them in their schools.

    We are measuring students up against what what's available to them, rather than comparing students, because we recognize that the K-12 system is not apples to apples for all the students who are going through it.

  • John Yang:

    To get a better sense of applicants' backgrounds, they began using race-neutral tools, like a College Board database of socioeconomic information about their neighborhoods and academic offerings at their high schools.

    Ogundele also added a diversity team in the admissions office, expanded outreach around the state, and made other changes.

  • Olufemi Ogundele:

    We created the Berkeley en Espanol Web site. For me, it was important that we had materials that were in a language that parents could absorb, that they were comfortable with, so they can engage in that conversation.

  • John Yang:

    Every year, Berkeley brings to campus high school college counselors and college advisers from around the state.

    Ogundele says these connections are increasingly important as the university tries to reach more underrepresented students.

  • Olufemi Ogundele:

    A lot of times, people think that the admissions work at Berkeley is the really strong students vs. the really weak students, and you just kind of make decisions. But, really, a majority of our applicant pool is strong enough to get in here. So let's have a conversation about, what are some of those deeper nuances that we need to really consider to really make sure that excellence emerges in the conversation?

  • John Yang:

    The changes are showing results. This year's freshman enrollment for underrepresented groups was about 24 percent, up from 17 percent in 2017.

    Angel Perez, CEO, National Association for College Admission Counseling: I think we are all going to be learning from the University of California system.

  • John Yang:

    Angel Perez says the approach Ogundele his colleagues are taking at Berkeley could be helpful for schools around the country if the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action. He's the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents more than 25,000 admission and counseling professionals.

  • Angel Perez:

    They are actually some of the pioneers and creating more partnership programs in local communities, partnering with high schools or community-based organizations and creating programs where students can begin to do work before they actually become high school seniors, so that they become eligible for the requirements for admission to get into the U.C.

    And so they have been really intentional there, and they actually have had some pretty good success.

  • John Yang:

    Berkeley is also focusing more attention minority students' on-campus experiences.

    Chaka Tellem, Student Body President, University of California, Berkeley: This year, I have classes where I'm the only Black student. Even the classes that are with an African American studies department, you will see a handful of Black-identifying students.

  • John Yang:

    Chaka Tellem, a senior majoring in political economy, is student body president, the first in school history to be elected twice. He says there's been progress, but problems remain.

  • Chaka Tellem:

    Unfortunately, it is a common phenomenon, especially among the Black community, to not really have this sense of belonging.

    And I think that really everyone, I would argue, that walks through here at some point in time will feel a sense of impostor syndrome, right, and impostor syndrome meaning the doubt that one has on whether or not they actually belong in an environment. And I think that, when you're the only one in certain classrooms, that's exacerbated three times over.

    It's going to be much more harder for you to actually reap the benefits and fully, like, embrace the wonderful things that Berkeley has to offer.

  • John Yang:

    Ogundele, Berkeley's head of admissions, says it's more difficult to achieve diversity without being able to consider race and ethnicity when choosing students.

  • Olufemi Ogundele:

    I'm really grateful for the gains that we have had. We have not returned back to pre-Prop 209 numbers. Take a look at the millions of dollars that the U.C. has spent, as well as Berkeley has spent, over the last 30 years to try to get the diversity numbers.

    When you look at what our data looked like back when we could considered those factors, we were much more in line with the high school graduating population in regards to diversity vs. acceptances and enrollments into Cal. If you asked me if I think that we could do better work with the ability to consider those factors, the answer to that is absolutely.

  • John Yang:

    An ability schools around the country could lose after the Supreme Court's ruling, which could come during the process for admitting the class of 2027.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Berkeley, California.

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