California anti-bias law criticised for hurting minority students

Thousands of low-income students from minority groups in California face reduced chances to gain degrees at good US universities because of a state law designed to protect against discrimination, education advocates have warned.

While drafted as a progressive political measure, college and non-profit staff say California’s intensifying travel bans are undermining tours by prospective students to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions across the country.

The spat highlights the intensifying “culture wars” in the US and raises concerns about a fresh barrier to social mobility.

Bill 1887 was passed in the California assembly in 2017 to outlaw official travel to states it considers discriminatory based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It has been extended regularly and now applies to 23 states.

However, employees in California’s 116 community or junior colleges — which offer low-cost two-year training that can be transferred and count towards undergraduate degrees — say the ban forbids the use of state funds for campus tours essential to motivating students to apply.

Yasmin Delahoussaye, director of the Educating Students Together College Access Program, a non-profit that arranges tours, said: “This shift kills any opportunity to show our students some of our nation’s top-tier schools. It’s extremely frustrating for those of us working to encourage black students to transfer. HBCUs are concentrated in those southern ‘red’ states we cannot travel to.”

She estimated that at least 2,000 fewer students would take tours this year as a result of the bans, which forced her to reschedule one planned tour four times, from Louisiana to Georgia and then Virginia before ending up in Maryland, Washington DC and Pennsylvania, where there are far fewer and more expensive HBCUs.

The legislation risks setting back recent efforts to improve access to tertiary education for poorer black students, including a pioneering agreement in 2015 to give students with good academic grades in California’s community colleges automatic admission into 39 of the country’s HBCUs.

Claudia Barbosa-Daniels, a counsellor at Evergreen Valley College in San José, said many students would not apply to HBCUs without visits to help familiarise them with living and studying conditions. “There’s nothing that beats an HBCU for a student of colour. The family component means they will thrive.”

She said that when the ban forced her to cancel a tour to Georgia last year, one HBCU cancelled promised scholarships of $20,000 for any student who participated and applied to transfer. “We’re just not able to have as many opportunities for our students because of the ban. It’s had a huge effect.”

Darla Cooper, executive director of the RP Group, a non-profit that works with the state’s community colleges, said: “This is really becoming a barrier for black students. They should have these opportunities but this is really tying our hands.”

She said the ban also risked reducing attendance at top professional events on diversity, including the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education held this year in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Inclusion run by the US Society for Human Research Management in Savannah, Georgia.

Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, said: “California colleges . . . could learn a lot from colleges in the other 49 states, including the two dozen they are not allowed to travel to using state funds. I worry that California’s travel restrictions will inadvertently prevent college leaders and faculty from seeing what works to close equity gaps in other states.”

Assembly member Evan Low, who introduced the California law, said there were no plans to change the rules, which he argued were not intended to prevent such trips.

“This isn’t intended to deter students from pursuing a higher education if they’re looking to attend or visit a college or university that is in a state where state-funded travel is banned,” he said in a statement to the Financial Times.

Walter Kimbrough, a former HBCU college president who is interim executive director of the Black Men’s Research Institute at Morehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta, said: “This is potentially an unintended consequence. I’ve not heard of a noticeable drop but this measure limits options for students.”

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