By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Black students have been admitted to the University of California at starkly lower rates since racial consideration was banned in public college admissions in the state, especially at the most prestigious campuses, a report showed on Thursday.
The report, by the education policy group Campaign for College Opportunity, also showed that African-American students were less likely than students from other ethnic groups to graduate from the state's public colleges and universities, and took longer to complete their degrees. (Report: http://r.reuters.com/mub35v)
The study comes amid an ongoing debate in the United States over affirmative action, the practice of giving an advantage in hiring or college admissions to some minority applicants to boost opportunities for under-represented populations.
"The persistent disparities between black students and their counterparts should sound an alarm for Californians and our elected leaders to make a concerted effort to systematically narrow and close these gaps," Michele Siqueiros, the group's president, wrote in the report. "To do otherwise is to accept a society of 'haves and have nots.'"
Amid a heated public campaign, California voters opted to end affirmative action programs in the most populous U.S. state in 1996, and the issue of racial preferences has been a frequent subject of legal battles across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of an affirmative action ban in Michigan, and earlier this year instructed a lower court to ask hard questions of a program at the University of Texas.
From 1994 to 2010, the percentage of black applicants admitted to the university system dropped to 58 percent from about 75 percent, according to the report, based on data provided by the colleges and universities.
By comparison, 83 percent of white students who applied in 2010 were admitted, along with 85 percent of Asians and 76 percent of Latinos.
The drop in African-American acceptance is more stark at the most prestigious campuses. From 1994 to 2010, black acceptance rates dropped from 51 percent to 15 percent at the University of California at Berkeley, and from 58 percent to 14 percent at UCLA, the study showed.
School officials were reviewing the report, university spokeswoman Dianne Klein said, adding that under-represented minority students were a high priority for the university, which has implemented supports aimed at helping them graduate.
"We should do more - and want to do more," she said.
Once enrolled, about 70 percent of black students complete their degrees, the lowest rate among other ethnic groups, the study showed.
"It is incredibly disheartening that we have not made much progress," Jamillah Moore, chancellor of the Ventura County Community College District told reporters. She urged the state to develop programs to boost preparedness among black and disadvantaged students.
Black students are the least likely in the state to graduate from high school, and many who do often lack the courses required for admission by the four-year universities, the study showed.
Budget cuts have also played a role, pushing tuition costs higher and limiting space, making it more competitive to get in.
Last month, Janet Napolitano, the former Homeland Security chief who is president of the University of California, pledged to freeze undergraduate tuition, part of an effort to make higher education more accessible.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)