In November 1996, California became the first state to explicitly prohibit the use of racial preferences in government programs.  The measure, Proposition 209, passed by a 54%-46% majority.  The measure followed the July 1995 vote by the Regents of the University of California (UC) to prohibit the use of racial preferences in admissions, contracting, and hiring.  To a degree, Prop. 209 was seen as a popular referendum on UC’s decision. When Prop. 209 qualified for the ballot, the Regents agreed to defer any implementation of its own measures until after the election, and Prop. 209’s effects on UC have been of central concern and debate.  Here we summarize some key data about changes at UC in the wake of Prop. 209, and link to more in-depth studies.

Undergraduate Enrollments. 

There appears to be no dispute that UC’s two most prestigious undergraduate campuses, UCLA and Berkeley, used substantial racial admissions preferences before Prop. 209.  Sander, Tables 1 & 2. These two campuses accounted for nearly half of all Black enrollment in the early and mid-1990s, and a third of Hispanic enrollment.  It is not surprising, then, that Black and Hispanic enrollment fell significantly at both campuses when the ban on preferences went into effect in 1998.  Comparing 1995-97 and 1998-2000, undergraduate Black enrollment at Berkeley and UCLA fell 40%, and Hispanic enrollment fell 34%. Table 3. This, as the briefing paper prepared for the UC Regents in September, 2020, reduced minority enrollments to “historically low levels.”

Perhaps surprisingly, however, Black and Hispanic undergraduate enrollment rose at nearly all the other UC campuses.  This was partly because some applicants who did not get into Berkeley or UCLA “cascaded” into the less-elite campuses within the UC system.  But it was, apparently, primarily due to a large surge in applications from Under Represented Minority (URM) students generally.  Between 1997 and 2000, applications from Black California residents to UC rose by 10%; from 1997 to 2006.  Higher applications translated into higher enrollments:  overall URM freshman enrollment at UC was up 5% from 1997 to 2000, and, from 1997 to 2006, by 15% for Blacks and 74% for Hispanics.

There appear to be four reasons for the large increase in URM enrollment post-209.  First, UC as a whole was growing; overall freshman enrollment grew by 41% from 1997 to 2006.  Second, UC launched an array of well-funded outreach efforts starting in 1998 and expanding in subsequent years. Briefing paper at 5. Various parts of the outreach effort sought to improve the quality of K-12 education in disadvantaged communities, to make the UC application process, including its array of prerequisite high school courses, better known among students who would be the first in their families to attend college.  These various efforts were nominally race-neutral, but disproportionately reached California URMs.  Third, the various UC campuses introduced or expanded the use of socioeconomic preferences after Prop. 209. These appear to be substantially smaller than the earlier racial preferences, but nonetheless disproportionately benefited URMs.   URM applicants to UC’s undergraduate campuses became substantially more likely to accept offers of admission after Prop. 209.  This was particularly true at UCLA and Berkeley, and it has been hypothesized that many URMs found it more appealing to attend a race-neutral UC than one using large racial preferences. 

Undergraduate Graduation Rates and Other Outcomes. 

Some basic facts are clear.  (1)  Post-Prop. 209, there remained a gap in academic credentials among enrolled students at all UC campuses.  This might be explained by, for example, the use of socioeconomic preferences.  GPA and other academic gaps across racial lines narrowed, but did not disappear.  (2) Graduation rates rose significantly and across the board.  Scholars disagree on whether the increase was much larger for URMs, and if so, whether the improvement was due to less “mismatch” among URM students.  It is clear, at least, that four-year graduation improvements were especially striking for Blacks at UCLA and Berkeley.  (Four-year graduation rates for Blacks were below 20% at both campuses pre-209, and in the 45-50% range a decade later.) (3)  Because of the gradual increases in both URM enrollment and URM graduation rates, the number of URM graduates rose over 50% in the decade after Prop. 209.  (4) Post-209, undergraduate URMs became much more likely to complete degrees in STEM fields.  In 2000, the number of URMs graduating from UC with STEM degrees was 989 – representing almost entirely students who had matriculated before Prop. 209 went into effect.  By 2010, URM STEM graduates had doubled, to 1,911.

List of Citations

Richard H. Sander. “Fifteen Questions About Prop. 16 and Prop. 209.” 2020: University of Chicago Law Review Online.

University of California. To the Regents of the University of California: Proposition 209: Primer on UC History and Impacts. 2020: Office of the President.