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Campus diversity's new math

California boosts racial mix without affirmative action.

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As courts and conservatives chip away at affirmative action, educators seeking to ensure diversity have increasingly turned to new social and economic criteria – from where students live to what language is spoken at home – to decide who goes to which school.

This fall, the opposite sides of San Francisco Bay are offering perhaps the most comprehensive look yet at how such policies work, from kindergarten through college.

Predictably, criticism is widespread. San Francisco public schools' "diversity index," which places children in schools based in part on family income or native language – but not race – led one neighborhood to consider seceding from the district.

Across the bay, an admissions initiative at the University of California at Berkeley, which gauges life challenges as well as report cards in a "comprehensive review," has been called a back door for racial preferences.

Yet there is evidence that the programs are bringing some measure of diversity – without running afoul of the law. Moreover, a new kind of diversity is emerging, with a wider range of rich and poor, as well as more well-rounded students of every race – rather than just good test takers.

Given California's position as a vanguard, the Bay Area's trials are being charted by educators nationwide. What's clear so far, in the programs' intricate formulas to weigh each socioeconomic factor, is that maintaining diversity will be far more complex than black and white.

"This is the affirmative action of the 21st century," says Richard Kahlenberg, an education expert at the Century Foundation in New York. "Communities are looking to keep some sort of diversity, but must turn away from race-based policies."

From race-based policy to 'comprehensive review'

It's an issue that the University of California has dealt with since state voters banned affirmative action in 1996. When Proposition 209 took effect, minority admissions to the state's three elite campuses – Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego – plummeted. At Berkeley, the percentage of African-Americans, Latinos, and native Americans admitted in one year fell from 25.3 to 11.0 percent.

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