The University of California (UC) system is often held up as the gold standard for student diversity, and was recently recognized for its improved student diversity rates. It’s true that diversity at UC rose from fall 2002 to fall 2022: The percentage of undergraduate Latino students enrolled across the system increased from 13% to 25%, and Black student enrollment also increased from 3% to 4.4%. Meanwhile, the percentage of White students decreased from 36.5% to 20.7%. Despite these changes, UC and other universities in California have struggled to fully diversify their student bodies, even after the implementation of affirmative action and no thanks to the state ban on affirmative action in 1998. The level of diversity in UC’s student body is not representative of the populations these institutions are designed to serve. What’s more, the changes in diversity at UC may be as much a function of population shifts as conscious policy. The UC system needs to do more to promote and maintain student diversity, as our analysis will show.

In this blog post, we will take a closer look at access for Black, Latino, Asian, Alaska Native, and Native American students at University of California campuses. Through our analysis, we will emphasize that increasing access for students of color is only the start; increasing acceptance — a word primarily used to mean admission to colleges or universities — for students of color must also include active, continuous efforts to make them feel supported while attending college. We will connect our findings to recommendations outlined in EdTrust’s recent reports on “’Segregation Forever’? The Continued Underrepresentation of Black Undergraduates at the Nation’s 122 Most Selective Private Colleges and Universities” and “Creating Positive College Campus Racial Climates for Students of Color” and highlight actionable strategies UC can take to improve access and acceptance.

How EdTrust Evaluates Accessibility at Institutions

As part of its “‘Segregation Forever’?” series, in 2023, EdTrust created State Representation (SR) and Migration Representation (MR) access scores, which were then translated into access grades, to measure how well an institution’s student population reflects the demographics of both the state in which it is located and the states from which its students migrated. In stark contrast to UC’s supposedly improved student diversity rates, every UC campus (excluding UC San Francisco) saw a decrease in SR and MR access scores from 2010 to 2020.

To calculate SR access scores, EdTrust researchers compared Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data on the percentage of undergraduates, by race or ethnicity, at an institution to census data on the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds, by race or ethnicity, in the state where the institution is located. To calculate MR access scores, we looked at IPEDS data and compared the percentage of undergraduates, by race or ethnicity, at an institution to census data on the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds, by race or ethnicity, in the states from which the students migrated. These access scores were then translated into access grades based on the score, so an access score of 90+ is an A, 80-89 is a B, 70-79 is a C, 60-69 is a D, and 59 and below is an F.

SR access scores may be more meaningful for evaluating access at UC campuses, since the UC system primarily enrolls in-state students and efforts to enroll more Californians at UC campuses are ongoing. However, MR access scores may provide a holistic picture of access. Access scores can also offer a deeper look into whether institutions are increasing opportunity for prospective students through acceptance — by which we mean fostering a genuine sense of belonging beyond admission through financial support and a positive, welcoming campus racial climate.

How Accessible Were UC Institutions for Students of Color in 2020?

While median Latino SR access scores have increased over time, many UC campuses — even those designated as HSIs — are still inaccessible for many Latino students

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that Latinos account for the biggest share of the college-age (18- to 24-year-old) population in California, comprising nearly 49% of that population. Our analysis revealed that while Latino access has risen over the years, all but two UC campuses still had failing grades for Latino access in 2020. The two that did not — UC Merced and UC Riverside, which earned A and B access grades, respectively — are appropriately designated as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). However, three other UC campuses are also designated as HSIs, despite receiving failing grades.

This wide disparity in access grades between HSI-designated UC campuses prompts a question: What does it really mean to be an HSI? To meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of an HSI, an institution must have an enrollment of undergraduate full-time students that is at least 25% Hispanic students, among other eligibility requirements. Yet as our access scores suggest, enrolling students isn’t necessarily the same as serving them. Gina Garcia, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Education, articulates this concept well and even invented a term — servingness — to explain “what it means to move from simply enrolling Latinx students to actually serving them.”

UC institutions, especially those designated as HSIs, should be accountable for serving Hispanic students, since they receive additional federal benefits specifically for Hispanic student attainment. As a recent EdTrust report suggested, accrediting organizations can help hold institutions accountable for educational quality by using metrics tied to enrollment, retention, and completion for Hispanic and Latino students, as well as other underserved groups.

While Asian access scores continue to be high, disaggregating the data among ethnicities would offer a deeper look into differences in access within the Asian community

The model minority myth continues to hide the wide economic disparities between different Asian ethnic groups. Research shows that Asian Americans have the greatest income divide among racial and ethnic groups, with educational attainment levels also varying widely. Therefore, while access is high for the general Asian American population, it is essential to consider whether any specific ethnic groups have been left behind.

We hope UC considers applying the access score formula to their disaggregated enrollment data for Asian Americans. This would allow the system to critically examine whether there are specific ethnic groups within the Asian American community that may face barriers to acceptance and take steps toward ensuring equitable access across all subgroups.

UC campuses can still take steps now to improve equitable pathways for all Asian Americans, including those who are often overlooked. UC’s longstanding policy to not consider legacy status in admissions and its decision to adopt a test-optional admissions process in 2020 are great first steps toward improving acceptance, but there are other strategies UC can utilize to enhance diversity and accessibility on its campuses. Expanding recruitment strategies and locations, improving community college pathways, and utilizing direct admissions are approaches that could capture students who may be eligible but don’t apply.

Alaska Native/Native American median access scores have dramatically decreased over time, calling for targeted outreach and recruitment

The American education system has long failed to welcome and support Native American students, which is evident when considering the historical impacts of Western boarding schools in Indigenous communities. In the late 1800s, boarding schools were developed to assist in the colonization process by assimilating Indigenous children to whiteness. As a result of these oppressive policies, Native American children and families were stripped of their identities, land, and culture. Due to the impact of the Native genocide and displacement in the U.S., the share of the California population identifying as only Native or a combination of ethnicities decreased from 13% in the late 18th century to 1.3% today. Yet, when Latino Native Americans are included, the multiracial, multi-ethnic share of the Native American population reaches close to 90%, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

This historical context helps explain why access at UC institutions is so low for Native Americans, but it also demonstrates the immense need to support Alaska Native and Native American students. Median access scores for this group fell from 52 in 2000 to 11 in 2020, and Alaska Natives and Native Americans experienced the most dramatic decrease in access at UCs. Higher education leaders must continue to consider whether “embedded benefits” — meaning that some students have more privileges than others — impact outreach and recruitment for Native or Alaskan Native students.

Encouragingly, the new UC-wide Native American Opportunity Plan has the potential to increase acceptance by waiving tuition and fees for students belonging to federally recognized Native American, American Indian, and Alaska Native tribes (effective fall 2022). These tuition waivers are legal because tribal citizenship is a political classification. Although UC views this program as a means to increase representation, access is about more than affordability and should involve more active recruitment strategies. UC institutions can continue to actively promote scholarship programs like the American Indian Services (AIS) Scholarship Program, which helps support Native American students financially, so they can not only attend college, but remain enrolled and graduate. For a more holistic approach, UC institutions can expand on-campus resources to support their federally recognized Native students throughout college. This could include emulating UC Berkeley’s Indigenous and Native Coalition – Recruitment Center, which was designed to make Native students feel welcome at UC Berkeley.

In 2020, all but one UC campus (UC Merced) had failing SR access grades for Black students, highlighting the need for campus policies that support and protect Black students

Several factors could explain why Black access scores are so low. Research shows that Black students routinely face numerous barriers to accessing and completing a college degree, including limited access to high-level math courses in high school, a lack of access to counselors and certified teachers in schools, and inadequate student funding. Black students may also face additional challenges that can hurt their sense of belonging and/or discourage them from pursuing a higher education, including insufficient access to college-readiness programs, segregated school systems, and negative stereotyping in schools, unfair school dress codes, and more. To improve campus racial climates for Black college students, UC institutions can encourage staff and faculty to understand and implement culturally relevant policies. Institutions can conduct annual assessments of campus racial climates to measure whether these policies are effective and capture incidents of racial discrimination and anti-Blackness.

What’s Next for UC Institutions?

Given the high volume of applications University of California institutions receive and the highly competitive acceptance rates at some campuses, UC should continue to ensure that the students who enroll are representative of the population the system serves — the people of California. Yet, as this blog post suggests, equitable admission for students from diverse backgrounds is only the first step toward ensuring access. UC institutions must also ensure that students feel supported after they are admitted.

Although this blog post only focuses on institutions in the UC system, the strategies highlighted here could be applied at other colleges and universities that are rethinking admissions following the U.S. Supreme court ruling against affirmative action. We hope this blog post will serve as a call to action for institutions to explore their data on access and strengthen holistic approaches to admissions for both prospective and current students.

Mia Elliott and Dylyn-Turner Keener are higher education research interns at EdTrust