BERKELEY -- Janelle Scott went to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. When she returned as a professor in 2008, she saw the effect of a decade-old ban on racial preferences -- in the faces of the students. The thriving black student scene of her college days was gone.
"It does feel like a different campus," she said.
As colleges across the nation nervously wait to see if the Supreme Court will outlaw affirmative action, some look at what happened in California, where voters banned the consideration of race in public university admissions and financial aid.
Proposition 209 -- approved in 1996 -- instantly changed the odds for black, Latino and Native American students vying for a spot in the selective University of California system. The change was felt most acutely at UC Berkeley and UCLA, two of the nation's most competitive and prestigious public universities.
At Cal, the freshman admission rates for those three groups plunged by more than 50 percent between 1997 and 1998, the year the ban took effect -- from 45 percent to 20 percent. The proportion of black freshmen fell by half, to 3.4 percent of the class.
Despite outreach programs for low-income students, more available spots, a policy to admit the top 9 percent of each high school class and an elaborate selection process that takes into account students' backgrounds, the "underrepresented minorities" in the University of California's nine undergraduate campuses remain decidedly underrepresented.
Black, Latino and Native American students made up almost 54 percent of California's high school graduates in 2012 -- but just 27 percent of all freshmen, UC-wide, and 16 percent of UC Berkeley's freshmen class that year.
Such disparities in one of the nation's most diverse states might become even more glaring in colleges elsewhere if they have similar restrictions, some advocates of race-conscious admissions argue.
"I don't think the country is ready for the demise of affirmative action," said Marsha Jaeger, who directs UC Berkeley's outreach programs.
In the case before the Supreme Court, Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, a student claims she was denied admission because other applicants received racial preference. If the court decides that even a limited use of race in college admissions is unconstitutional and discriminatory -- a departure from previous rulings -- all colleges that receive federal funds, including most private universities, could have to change their affirmative action policies. That would include private colleges in California, which were unaffected by Proposition 209.
The ruling could come as soon as Monday.
The former UC regent who led the successful campaign to stop racial preferences in California's public universities said he hopes the justices will force the rest of the country to follow suit.
"I hope they terminate this whole business," said Ward Connerly, a conservative political activist who is African-American. "In our culture, racial discrimination is wrong, right? And yet we have openly practiced discrimination, calling it diversity. We sort of look the other way because the cause is presumed to be noble, yet it's just the flip side of the coin."
Overall, UC campuses are admitting more students from poor families than before the ban -- no surprise, perhaps, given demographic shifts and the system's post-Proposition 209 emphasis on reaching low-income students of all races. More than one third of the roughly 35,000 UC freshmen enrolled in 2010 came from families making less than $40,000, up from 28 percent in 1995. And even with record-high applications, the system's universities accepted 75 percent of all first-generation college students that year who applied.
Still, UC officials acknowledge that those gains have not kept pace with the growing numbers of poor and Latino high school students. And as the system becomes increasingly more competitive, Scott and other observers worry that students from low-performing high schools will find it even harder to gain admission.
The state's largest public university system, the 23-campus California State University, generally admits students who meet certain qualifications, rather than through a selective process, so its admissions process changed little after Proposition 209, said Jo Volkert, who oversees admissions at San Francisco State.
Programs such as the six-week summertime Pre-College Academy, open to poor and first-generation college students, give extra motivation, academic preparation and sense of belonging to teenagers like J.T. Branch and Roberto Velez from Antioch High and Sandra Flores from Richmond High.
The outreach at Cal and other UC campuses is meant to prepare students for college life -- not to groom them for UC -- but spending weeks on a college campus can have that effect.
"You get to walk on campus, and you feel like you're a college student," Velez said. "I want to go to Berkeley."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected this week to rule in a Texas case that could affect universities nationwide if the court decides that any consideration of race in college admissions violates the Constitution.
California's public universities already operate under an state affirmative action ban, Proposition 209. But the Supreme Court ruling could affect the state's private colleges if they receive federal funding.
The year Proposition 209 took effect, the admissions rate for black students applying to UC Berkeley fell from 47.8 percent to 19.7 percent; Latino students saw their admission rate go from 44.4 percent to 20.6 percent.