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Federal affirmative action ruling has ‘little impact’ at WWU

Western struggles to diversify student population

Yaileen Gonzalez
Yaileen Gonzalez
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to dismantle affirmative action was hailed by Republicans as an end to racial discrimination, just as it was decried by Democrats as a blow to progressive efforts to bring equity into college classrooms.

After the Thursday, June 29 ruling, Gov. Jay Inslee took the opportunity to call out the six “Republican-appointed judges” on the high court as “blind to the fact that that our long history of racism contributes to the opportunity barriers ethnic minorities still face today.”

As monumental as the decision was in some other states, it won’t change much at Western Washington University or other public colleges in the state. 

Affirmative action was effectively abolished in Washington almost 25 years before the Supreme Court overturned it on the national level. Washington voters in November 1998 approved Initiative 200, which prohibited the government “from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to individuals or groups based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, public education or public contracting.”

With I-200 in mind, WWU President Sabah Randhawa issued a statement on June 29 saying the Supreme Court decision would “have little impact on Western’s ongoing efforts to create a more inclusive and diverse campus community.”

However, data from the university’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness (OIE) show those efforts over the past dozen years have yielded few gains in diversity.

Western’s white student population dropped from 76.3% in fall 2010 to 68.5% in fall 2022. At first glance, this might look like progress in diversifying the school’s enrollment. 

But the numbers track with the statewide trend over a similar period. Washington’s population was 72.5% white in 2010 and 64.3% white in 2021 (the most recent year American Community Survey data was available from the U.S. Census Bureau). 

The bottom line: Western remained less diverse than the state as a whole over this period.

The university has made almost exactly zero progress in attracting Black students. That population went from 265.6 students, including fractions represented by students enrolled part-time, to 266.5 students from 2010 to 2022. 

Black people are underrepresented at Western, making up 2% of the student population compared to 4% statewide. The comparison with state figures is apt because a large majority (85.9%) of Western students are from Washington state.

Western’s Director of Admissions Cezar Mesquita noted that the proportion of high school seniors who identify as Black declined from 2010 to 2022, from 5.4% to 4.9%.

“It is important to recognize that fewer than half of those who graduate will not enroll in college immediately following their high school experience, readily lending to many Black students’ narrative of barriers and challenges on the journey to higher education,” Mesquita said in an email.

Western administrators work closely with student groups including the Black Student Union and African Caribbean Club, Mesquita said, “in developing programs that speak openly and authentically about attending a predominantly white institution.”

Western saw a small but sharp decline in enrollment among Indigenous students, OIE data shows. Students identified on the office’s website as American Indian or Alaska Native fell from 211.1 full-time students in 2010 to just 52.7 in 2022 — a 75% drop. The 2022 figure represents just 0.4% of the total student population.

Western officials contend, however, that the school’s American Indian and Alaska Native population has grown since 2010, contrary to the data on the OIE webpage.

“According to the Office of Institutional Engagement and the office of the Tribal Liaison, Western had 360 American Indian or Alaska Native-identifying students out of a total of 14,747 total enrolled students last fall, or 2.44% of the student population,” wrote John Thompson, Western’s assistant director of the Office of University Communications, in an email.

Western officials can point to a definitive gain in diversity with another group. The proportion of Hispanic students doubled from 2010 to 2022, according to the OIE, from 736 full-time students (5.3%) to 1,450 (10.6%).

“We now feature marketing materials, information sessions and campus tours in Spanish, elements which were not available in 2010,” Mesquita said.

While people of Asian descent now make up a larger fraction of the state population compared to 2010, climbing from 7.2% to 9.5%, those figures have gone the other direction at Western. In 2010, 6.3% of the student body was Asian. That number was down slightly in 2022, to 5.9% — a difference of 83.5 full-time students.

In its affirmative action decision, a Supreme Court majority lumped white and Asian students together, ruling that race-based admissions were unfair to both groups.

In his statement, Randhawa said Western will continue to conduct “outreach, networking, and marketing to ensure well-rounded pools of qualified applicants,” while also making the SAT and ACT tests optional. 

Research has shown that socioeconomic factors, including race, account for a significant amount of variation in standardized test scores.

Mesquita, in the email to Cascadia Daily News, said WWU’s marketing efforts have had some success attracting a diverse student body.

“Western’s refinement of its outreach and messaging efforts helped position the institution as a top destination for many students from underserved communities,” he said.

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