The number of minority students offered places at California's top public universities has plummeted by more than half. The figures, which have dismayed university officials, may fuel a national debate over how United States student admissions are handled.
The number of black students offered places by the University of California at Berkeley fell from 562 in 1997 to 191 this year, a drop of 66 per cent to the lowest figure since 1981. The number of Hispanic students accepted fell from 1,266 to 60. The figures were only mildly less catastrophic at UCLA and UC San Diego, the other flagship campuses in the UC system.
The dramatic slump in the numbers reflects the fallout from Proposition 209, passed by California voters in November 1996. It banned the use of racial preferences to help admit minority students whose exam results alone did not guarantee them places, a common practice in US universities since the 1970s.
US conservatives have led a concerted attack on such affirmative action, or positive discrimination, programmes across the country. They argue that the programmes, although intended to combat past racism, discriminate illegally and unfairly against white and Asian students.
A court challenge ended affirmative action programmes at the University of Texas, another state university, and several other cases are pending. There has been mounting pressure on university officials to ignore candidates' race and look solely at exam scores.
But the enduring problem is that blacks and Hispanics consistently score lower than white and Asian counterparts, surveys show. The UC figures have put what seemed a theoretical issue in stark relief and could spark a backlash.
Minority admissions to law and medical schools in California and Texas have already slumped. This trend could slow minority progress into the US middle class.
There is particular concern that California's growing Hispanic community, swelling with immigrants from Latin America and gaining increasing political clout, faces being shut out of the state's top universities.
The number of Hispanic high school graduates in California is growing by 8 per cent to 10 per cent a year, said Eugene Garcia, chairman of the Latino/Chicano Policy Project and a dean of the graduate school at UC Berkeley. "Many of the kids who are going to be future leaders will not be from institutions intended to produce society's leaders," he said.
UC Berkeley is the most selective public university in the US. Blacks, Hispanics and American Indian minorities accounted for 23 per cent of admissions last year. This year, they make up just 10 per cent. The percentage of Asian students rose slightly, from 35 per cent to 38 per cent.
The current UC figures represent only places offered. The disparity between races may grow worse with the actual admissions, because private universities will also try to snap up the top minority students offered UC places, Garcia said.
In the wake of Proposition 209, UC campuses have made a special effort to persuade minority students that they are still welcome and to keep applying. That may be an uphill struggle next year. "We have to take this seriously. Our future and the future of the state of California is at stake," said Robert Berdahl, UC Berkeley chancellor.
But there may be growing political pressure to overhaul the admissions system. Texas, in the name of promoting diversity, has implemented a plan to admit the top 10 per cent of every high school class to its public universities. California is considering a similar measure.