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Examining the impact of California's ban on affirmative action in public schools


The Supreme Court this week is expected to rule in a case that will decide whether affirmative action is legal in the U.S. The case involves admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, a state where affirmative action has already been prohibited, offers a sense of how a national ban might play out. In 1996, California voters passed ballot Proposition 209, which banned race and gender as factors in state university admissions, as well as hiring and contracting. Zachary Bleemer has studied the impact of that ballot proposition. He's an incoming assistant professor of economics at Princeton University. He spoke with A. Martínez.


Now, Proposition 209 ended affirmative action admissions practices in California's public universities. How did that change the student makeup of those places?

ZACHARY BLEEMER: Yeah, So Berkeley and UCLA, the most selective public universities in the state, saw a declines in Black and Hispanic enrollment of about 40% immediately the year after the Proposition was implemented. There was no net change in black and Hispanic enrollment at less selective California universities because while some black and Hispanic students lost access to those schools because affirmative action ended, they also gained Black and Hispanic students from more selective schools like Berkeley and UCLA that those students could no longer get into. So you saw pretty big changes at the most selective universities but no net changes in the middle and, if anything, small increases in Black and Hispanic enrollment at the least selective public universities in the state.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like California has served as a quarter of a century experiment on this.

BLEEMER: That's, I think, exactly right. California only banned affirmative action at public, not private, universities. But I think we can get a pretty good sense of the long-run ramifications of affirmative action bans by seeing what happened in California when that ban was implemented in 1998.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, your research goes beyond college life to long-term economic outcomes resulting from the '96 ban. What did you find?

BLEEMER: So when you compare Black and Hispanic and Native American Californians who turned 18 in 1998, one year too late for them to take advantage of the University of California's prior affirmative action policies, you see that, you know, they enroll at less selective universities because affirmative action was unavailable. And that has long-run ramifications for those students. They're less likely to earn graduate degrees. Among lower-testing students, they're less likely to ever earn an undergraduate degree at all. They're less likely to earn degrees in lucrative STEM fields. And if you follow them into the labor market, for the subsequent 15 or 20 years, they're earning about 5% lower wages than they would have earned if they'd had access to more selective universities under affirmative action.

Black and Hispanic students saw substantially poorer long-run labor market prospects as a result of losing access to these very selective universities. But there was no commensurate gain in long-run outcomes for the white and Asian students who took their place. It seems like these very selective public universities in California just provided greater value to relatively disadvantaged Black and Hispanic students who came from lower-income neighborhoods, had poorer job networks, relatively less access to otherwise successful peers, and who were thus able to better take advantage of the resources provided by these super selective universities than the white and Asian students who took their places.

MARTÍNEZ: Zach Bleemer is an incoming assistant professor of economics at Princeton University. Thanks very much.

BLEEMER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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