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Study looks at top minority student college applications

– Banning race-based preferences at public universities in California and Texas has not deterred very highly qualified minority students from applying to the top public schools in those two states, according to a new study.

When Texas ended affirmative action in 1996 and California followed suit in 1998, many feared a decline in diversity and uncertainty about admission prospects would steer the best and brightest Hispanic and black students away from the states' top public colleges and universities.

But although representation of minority students at top public schools declined, interest did not.

Researchers David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and Alan B. Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton University, acknowledged that while overall minority enrollment at the elite public universities in Texas and California fell dramatically, the highest qualified minority students haven't lost interest in those schools.

They based their findings on the fractions of Scholastic Aptitude Test-takers in California and Texas who sent their SAT results to the top public schools in those two states.

In California, those schools were UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego. In Texas, the schools were Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Austin.

The research, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is about to rule on whether the law school at the University of Michigan - a public institution - can include race as a factor in determining admissions.

"We've only got a small part of the (affirmative action) story here," cautioned Card. "It's not front and center of the debate; it's more of a side light."

Yet, the study may draw attention from many of those concerned about the social consequences of ending affirmative action, an issue fraught with emotion on both sides.

"We expected to see some reaction," said Card. "Certainly many people are concerned that the elimination of affirmative action would have unintended effects on high achieving minorities."

Card and Krueger tracked submission of SAT scores to the top public universities in California and Texas by white, Asian, Hispanic and black students. They classified as "very highly qualified minority students" those who had grade point averages of A-minus or better, or SAT scores of 1,300 or higher.

Both Texas and California require standardized tests for admission to public four-year colleges and universities. The states also have relatively high SAT participation rates.

Test-takers report their ethnicity and other academic and family background information, enabling the researchers to determine that, in California, 6 percent of SAT-takers are black and 18 percent are Hispanic. Meanwhile, in Texas, 10 percent of students taking the SAT are black and 20 percent are Hispanic.

Before students take the test, they can choose up to four schools to receive their SAT scores for free, plus four more for a nominal fee. After taking the test, they can have their scores sent to still more schools for a small fee. On average, students send their scores to five or six institutions.

Card and Krueger found there is a high correlation between submission of SAT scores to a school and the likelihood that students will apply there, especially when looking at applications to the most selective schools.

Using administrative data for the UC campuses regarding the number of applicants by ethnicity each year from 1995 to 2001, they calculated how many students in each ethnic group sent their SAT scores to each campus, and compared the numbers.

Before the elimination of affirmative action, they found that high achieving minority students in California were more likely to send their test scores to one of the state's top three public schools than were comparable white or Asian students. In Texas, minorities were less likely to submit their test scores to the state's top schools.

Card said those differences may reflect campus locations. Two of the elite public schools in California - UCLA and UC Berkeley - are in diverse urban areas, while many other UC campuses are not. In Texas, the two top public universities - UT Austin and Texas A&M - are in small cities, while several other Texas colleges are in larger urban areas.

After the elimination of affirmative action, the UC Berkeley-Princeton study found no change in where students sent their scores. Highly qualified Hispanic and black students in Texas and California continued to seek their places in top schools and did not lower their sights by simultaneously sending their scores to a less preferred school.

Krueger mentioned that "the fact that high-achieving minority students continue to set their sights high is a positive result, because students who have high ambitions are often successful, regardless of whether they are admitted to the college of their choice."

There are several possible explanations for these students' pursuit of top schools, the researchers said.

First, said Card, "The way people choose to go to college is such a subtle thing. High school students don't have a lot of sophisticated information - the rest of the world doesn't really know all the things that make Princeton and (UC) Berkeley different. The average student is making a decision with very little information."

Students may choose a certain university, for example, because they like the grand architecture, or because their uncle went to school there. They might reject another because it was a rainy and windy the day when they visited.

The researchers also stressed that most students have limited information about their actual admission prospects at any given school, especially first-time SAT takers who might not be able to predict their scores. Also, they said some students are relatively unconcerned about the broad demographic characteristics of their potential peer group on campus, and may feel less stigmatized by a "non-affirmative action" environment.

At UC Berkeley, Card noted there are few black students, but there also is no one homogenous ethnic group of students, and no minority student is likely to feel like he or she is "the only minority."

Still, the "sad number," said Card, is that only 900 African American students entered the entire UC system as new freshmen in fall 2002.

A diverse student body may not be as important to minority students because many universities have separate dormitories for students based on interests or racial or ethnic backgrounds, as well as special fraternities and sororities that offer the same. Studies show that people generally like to spend time with people like themselves, and such housing may lighten the impact of a less diverse campus, Card said.

"In the '70s, that (type of housing) was considered to be a good thing because they would give you support," he said, noting that that type of system has fallen in and out of favor over the years as some fear it tends to marginalize students.

Still other factors may explain the interest of these students in applying to top schools, Card said, such as increased outreach to increase both minority applications and the yield of minority students admitted to top public universities in California.

"At the three most selective UC campuses, the relative yield rate of minority students rose slightly between 1997 and 1998 (by about 10 percent)..., " said the report.