Repealing Proposition 209 Benefits Underprivileged Students Commentary
Repealing Proposition 209 Benefits Underprivileged Students
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JURIST Guest Columnist Frances Contreras, Director of the Higher Eduction Program at the University of Washington, says repealing Proposition 209 in California would reinstate a vital admissions tool for underprivileged students…

The passage of Proposition 209 in California has resulted in limited access to higher education for historically underrepresented students, particularly at the flagship University of California (UC) campuses. In a time when California’s kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) population and high school graduating classes have become increasingly multicultural, the UC system continues to fall short of ensuring that their student bodies represent the state population. In fall 2011, over 51.4 percent of the K-12 population is Latino, yet Chicano/Latino students constituted approximately 16.6 percent of the entire UC system. Because the past 15 years conveys a story of uneven access to public UC universities, the move to repeal Proposition 209 is long overdue.

Ten years ago, I explored the impact of Proposition 209 on undergraduate diversity at select UC campuses. At that time, the senior administrators I interviewed were worried that “a major tool was taken away … at a time when [they] felt as if [they] were starting to see a difference.” Race was never the sole factor used for admissions decisions. However, what Proposition 209 took away from universities was a vital tool for assessing an applicants’ background among a host of variables. Further, researchers have confirmed that there is no substitute for race in ensuring a diverse class of admits. Responses to date, such as holistic review that was implemented following the passage of Proposition 209, have simply been unable to restore diversity to the levels we witnessed under affirmative action — levels that were still very far from representing an inclusive UC system.

Although the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education and its subsequent revisions stipulate that the top 12.5 percent are eligible for admission to a UC campus, the policy does not stipulate automatic admission to any UC campus. This has confirmed what many had initially feared when Proposition 209 passed — that the policy would create an increasingly segregated system of higher education in California. Proposition 209 has led to a “cascading effect,” where less competitive UC eligible students have access to the less selective UC campuses. The admit rates for UC Berkeley from 1994-2009 compared to UC Riverside illustrate the “cascading” that has occurred across the UC system with historically underrepresented students more likely to gain admission to less selective institutions like UC Riverside than flagship institutions like UC Berkeley. The admit rates further show the steady decline of minority admission to UC Berkeley. Proposition 209 narrowed access to the flagships for students who where competitively eligible, a guarantee not given to students who simply fell in the top 12.5 percent of the state’s graduating class.

What many did not predict in the aftermath of Proposition 209 was an impact on access and admit pools to moderately selective campuses. For example, in the case of UC Davis, the admit rate declined most starkly for African American student applicants. The uneven inputs that Latino and African American students in particular face in the California pre-college education system, such as access to quality pre-school, honors or advanced placement courses; credentialed teachers; or physical resources such as texts and technology, places them at a disadvantage for not only transitioning to college, but also being highly competitive. Middle class and affluent families, however, because of their access to an uneven set of inputs throughout their schooling experience, are more likely to constitute those competitively eligible for admission to highly and moderately selective UC campuses.

The US Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger ruled that race could be used as one factor in admission decisions. This ruling represents a window of opportunity for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to apply the same logic to California by allowing higher education institutions to use race as a factor in admissions decisions and associated practices, such as outreach efforts.

Proposition 209 not only impacted access to the halls of UC campuses but altered how UC campuses recruited and served populations historically and presently underrepresented in higher education. As a senior administrator from UC Davis describes the impact of Proposition 209:

It’s not only the admissions process … there were some pre-enrollment programs like our summer bridge programs that targeted underrepresented students so they could get good solid footing; most of those programs now focus on disadvantaged students but not specifically underrepresented ethnic group[s]. [Proposition 209] certainly changed those efforts.

A “compelling state interest” exists in providing greater access to higher education for a large base of students that remain grossly underrepresented despite representing the majority of K-12 students. Together, historically underrepresented students constitute 61.4 percent of K-12 students in California.

Repealing Proposition 209 would allow for a more comprehensive admissions policy that acknowledges persistent racial inequities throughout the public education system and bring the state a step closer to investing in the residents that help to fund public universities through state income taxes, sales tax revenue, property taxes and lottery revenue. The compelling interest for the state is to create a UC system that more accurately and justly serves its residents and ultimately represents the entire state population.

Frances Contreras is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington in the College of Education in Leadership and Policy Studies. She researches issues of equity and access for Latina/o and underrepresented students in the education pipeline, including the transition between K-12 and higher education, community college transfer, affirmative action in higher education and the role of the public policy arena in ensuring student access and equity in public education.

Suggested citation: Frances Contreras, Repealing Proposition 209 Benefits Underprivileged Students, JURIST – Hotline, Mar. 16, 2011,

This article was prepared for publication by Sean Gallagher, an assistant editor for JURIST’s professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.