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Four Affirmative Action Myths

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

Student movements often make headlines for their actions. But hard research and clear thinking are the foundation for social progress.

The Berkeley campus (University of California) is becoming a font of information on affirmative action. In my opinion, student activists are better informed, more clearheaded, more true to the principles of multicultural democracy, than all the pontifs and pundits on network TV combined.

Beyond The Barriers (a journal in defense of affirmative action, produced by the Graduate Minority Students' Project), Diversity In Action literature, and the Berkeleyan (newspaper for faculty and staff) provide excellent study material for the wider community. Here are four myth-debunking samples from the Berkeley campus.

Myth 1

Berkeley has lowered its standards and admitted unqualified minority students while turning away highly qualified white and Asian American students.

  • Berkeley has been able to diversify its freshman class and, at the same time, greatly strengthen the class academically. If we compare by quintile the freshman class of fall 1994 with that of fall 1984 on any academic measure, we find the fall 1994 freshman class stronger from top to bottom.
  • Ninety-five percent of the students admitted to Berkeley meet or exceed minimum UC requirements, placing them among the top 12.5% of California's high school graduates. Following UC Regent guidelines, Berkeley has historically chosen from among the full range of the top 12.5%, which includes the overwhelming majority of all admitted minority students. The other 5% are admitted by exception because they are recruited athletes or because they have overcome remarkable hardship and have demonstrated the potential to succeed at Berkeley. This 5% includes students of every ethnicity and racial group.
  • It is important to note that Berkeley admits a number of white and Asian American applicants with lower grades and test scores than many African American and Hispanic students.
Myth 2

Affirmative Action has failed

  • Not at Berkeley. The campus has diversified the undergraduate student body and increased the academic qualifications of every part of the freshman class. In addition, our graduation rates are the highest they have ever been, and the graduation rates for underrepresented minority students are climbing sharply. The gap between whites and Asian Americans, on the one hand, and underrepresented minority students on the other, continues to narrow.
  • Affirmative action is not something UC has done for underrepresented minority students. It is something the University has done for all of California.
Myth 3

Most of the minority students who enroll at Berkeley fail

  • Berkeley's overall graduation rates have climbed steadily over the past 15 years and are the highest they have ever been. The campus' current overall six-year graduation rate of 80% is much higher than the six-year rate of 48% for the freshman class of 1955, at a time when the undergraduate student body was overwhelmingly white. Not only are the graduation rates for all students going up, but the rates for African American and Chicano students are going up faster than the rates for Asian and white students, so that the gap between different ethnicities continues to narrow.
  • In addition, Berkeley's one-year persistence rate is the highest it has ever been: 94% of the freshmen who entered in the fall 1992 returned for a second year.
Myth 4

Only minority students benefit from Affirmative Action

  • In keeping with the 1978 Supreme Court Bakke decision, Berkeley's definition of diversity is far more complex than simply race and ethnicity. The campus also gives special consideration to applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds, California residents, students with special talent in the performing arts, recruited athletes, students who are 25 years of age or older, students from rural high schools in California, and disabled students.
  • Graduation rates for all undergraduates at Berkeley are very high compared to those for similar institutions, and these rates continue to climb.

Learning about other groups in our society and learning to work with a wide range of individuals should be a fundamental part of a university education in California in the l990s. The University is one of the few places in our society where such contact can routinely take place.

Paul Rockwell, formerly assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern University, is a writer and children's librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 20, 1995.