The next affirmative action should focus on first-generation college students

The state Legislature pulled the plug recently on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have reinstated some form of affirmative action in the University of California admissions process.

It’s understandable to want to avoid using race as either a positive or a negative when admitting students to the UC system. However, the effect of these “race neutral” admissions has been to reduce the number of black and Latino students—and that leads to not only less diversity on campuses, but also fewer minority students in government- and community-leadership positions post-college.

There is one way to encourage diversity that doesn’t rely on race, and that is to offer programs that encourage the admission and support the academic success of first-generation college students. The post-World War II GI Bill enabled millions of first-generation college students, immigrants and the children of immigrants, many of them from impoverished backgrounds, to earn a college education. It changed our nation and led to a period of innovation, prosperity and social and civil-rights advances.

We still have plenty of first-generation college students who could use help. Without parents to guide their college experience, too many of these students find the UCs confusing, frustrating and impossible. And it’s not as if affirmative action for first-generation college students would automatically affect only racial and ethnic minorities and recent immigrants. There are plenty of white American families that have never had a college graduate.

Let’s talk about diversity on campus in a new way, one that rewards the hard-working first-generation students, the next American success story.