Seven years ago, inside an eighth-grade classroom at Mount Vernon Junior High School in central Los Angeles, Deborah Membreno began to imagine a life beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the concrete schoolyard. Her outlook brightened the day an adviser from a University of California outreach program visited to talk about college.
The adviser who showed up at the school, where nearly 90 percent of students qualified for free lunch, was from the university’s Early Academic Outreach Program. She argued a positive side to being poor: The government would help pay for college.
“I thought I was smart,” Membreno says. “I had good grades. But before that day I didn’t think going to college was a possibility. My friends and I thought the cost would be too great.”
Membreno’s parents were undocumented Honduran immigrants trying to eke out a living. Her mom cleaned houses in the beachfront neighborhoods of Venice and Santa Monica. Her dad worked in a clothing warehouse downtown. They were divorced. Most of the time, Membreno lived with her father in a house with 12 other people: aunts, uncles, cousins, and a few nonrelatives.
The Early Academic Outreach Program adviser gave Membreno a chart listing the standardized tests and subjects needed for admission to the University of California—history, English, math, lab science, foreign language, visual/performing arts and electives—highlighting those courses that should be taken as Honors or Advanced Placement “to increase competitiveness.” At home that afternoon, Membreno framed the chart and hung it on the wall.
“I knew what I had to do,” Membreno says.
The Early Academic Outreach Program aims to provide poor students with the benefits equivalent to those enjoyed by their affluent counterparts: individualized college counseling, help filling out applications and financial aid forms, free PSAT and SAT prep, campus visits, even enrichment classes on Saturdays and during the summer.
The program took root in 1976, after a university task force study revealed that in California underrepresented students (African American, American Indian, Chicano and Latino) were uninformed about the requirements for admission to the state’s university system. On the basis of this study, the university sought state funds to create student affirmative action programs designed to help middle and high school students prepare for college.
Outreach programs have since taken on renewed importance as a way to build a student body that reflects the diverse population of California. The University of California’s mission as a land grant institution, established in its 1868 charter, requires the school to “so apportion the representation of students…that all portions of the State shall enjoy equal privilege therein.”
California ordered its universities to stop considering race in admissions in 1996, after residents voted into law Prop 209, which banned the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. Soon after, the percentage of first-year students at UC’s most competitive campuses—Berkeley and UCLA—fell sharply. The percentage of first-year African American freshmen at UC-Berkeley fell from 6.7 percent in 1995 to 3.7 percent in 1998, and at UCLA from 7.4 percent to 3.5. In the same years, the percentage of Latino and Chicano freshman at UC-Berkeley fell from 17 percent to 8 percent, and from 22 percent to 11 percent at UCLA.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court stopped short of outlawing affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas, but said universities must prove the use of race is necessary to create a diverse student body. In October of last year, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case that will decide if a 2006 amendment to the Michigan constitution banning affirmative action at public universities is constitutional. A decision is expected in the spring.California is not the only state legally constrained from using race as a factor in admissions criteria. Eight states in total have banned racial preferences in admissions decisions. Universities nationwide fear the law will be struck down altogether, especially in light of recent Supreme Court cases reviewing affirmative action.
In the face of increased scrutiny of racial preferences, universities across the country are looking for alternate ways of creating a path to higher education for underrepresented students.
“The book is about how universities might take up outreach in the face of race-neutral policies or having to very narrowly tailor their affirmative action,” Patricia Gandara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, says. “We’re trying to provide guidance about what works to attract and support students of color in particular.” Gandara is writing a book about UC’s outreach programs and the role they play in diversifying the university. She hopes to supply a model for universities across the country looking to increase enrollment of underrepresented students.
These programs, Gandara says, do not provide a magic bullet. “There have to be different metrics of success. If you’re taking a low-income student from a low-income high school, and you’re changing their future by helping them go to college at all, I think that’s a significant win.”
Early Academic Outreach Program is not a recruitment effort for the University of California, says Debra Pounds, the director of UCLA’s EAOP chapter. She emphasizes that the program’s mission is to first and foremost help underrepresented students go to college. “We make sure students are meeting UC admissions requirements because we believe that if students can get into UCLA, they can get into just about any school they choose.”