THE BLOG

Diversity, Napolitano, and the University of California

01/22/2014 01:22 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014
  • Robert Shireman Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation; former education official in the Obama and Clinton Administrations

Last week I had the privilege of joining President Obama and the first lady at a White House summit designed to spur efforts to make sure that higher education serves as an engine of upward mobility rather than a replicator of inequality. One hundred college presidents came with formal pledges in hand, committing time and resources to strategies to improve access and success of disadvantaged young adults. The three heads of California's public systems all attended, including the University of California's new system president, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Just weeks on the job, Napolitano was the first participant to directly and explicitly own up to the racial undercurrent to the discussion. UC's enrollment of low-income students is impressive, but the inadequate representation of Latino and African American students is a real problem. Seeming fully in command of the subject matter, Napolitano lamented the ripple effect this lack of diversity will have at all colleges because of the role UC plays in preparing the future faculty members who will serve as mentors to the next generation of students at campuses far beyond UC.

It is too early in Napolitano's tenure to expect that she would have a grand plan for tackling the system's diversity issues. But the formal pledge she submitted to the White House for the event included a hint at one plank. It would feature efforts to enhance transfer to UC not just from community colleges generally, but from those that "enroll large numbers of underrepresented and low-income students but send relatively few on to UC."

With more than double the representation of African American and Latino students as UC, the state's community colleges should already be a rich source of added diversity for UC. How much of a difference are they making already? The sad and surprising answer: none. In 2010, the most recent complete data available, while Latinos and African Americans make up 42 of the state's population, they amounted to only 20 percent of incoming transfers, lower than the proportion of new freshmen (24 percent). At the most selective campuses the results were mixed: transfer diversity was a little better than freshman class diversity at Berkeley, but it was a bit worse at UCLA and UC San Diego.

Improved sharing of data across our state systems -- part of the UC pledge at the White House summit -- might help locate a few more community college students who could transfer to UC. But really moving this needle is going to require a lot more. In particular, the UC faculty need to get more serious about the transfer pathways that the 23 California State University campuses are developing with the community colleges. UC campuses have been absent from the development of transfer pathways because they say they are different. They are not entirely wrong about that: courses that count toward a degree at a less selective college are frequently a freshman entrance requirement at a selective college. Clear pathways need to be developed, but they may need to deviate from the standard, such as requiring more rigorous academics or leading to sophomore rather than junior standing. The University of California needs to get involved in creating transfer paths to UC, while the community colleges, state universities and Governor Brown all need to be flexible and creative in how to fit the pieces together.

President Napolitano has identified a valid source for the diversity the UC campuses need. Let's hope she can light a fire under the complex machinery that needs to work to tap into that source, so we can report back to the Obamas on the progress our state has made.