Students walk through Turlington Plaza at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 2022. At UF and some other Florida schools, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students initially increased after the state stopped using race for admissions decisions in 1999. But those gains disappeared in later years. [ LAUREN WITTE | Special to the Times ]

The U.S. Supreme Court has settled a decadeslong debate over affirmative action, ruling Thursday that public and private universities may no longer use race or ethnicity as a factor when deciding who gets in.

The decision will reshape admissions at many of the nation’s top universities, but will have little impact in Florida, where race-conscious admissions have been banned at the state’s public universities since a 1999 executive order signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida is just one of a handful of states that prohibit race-based admissions. So, what can the Sunshine State tell us about the future of college admissions nationwide? The answers are mixed.

In the years following the 1999 executive order, called One Florida, overall representation of Black and Hispanic students at the state’s public universities did fall relative to population, but that wasn’t true everywhere. Some schools, including the University of Florida, actually made gains in Black and Hispanic representation.

However, over the past decade, the gap has widened between Black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts. And without race-conscious admissions, some worry that the state lacks the ability to address that inequality.

Here’s a closer look at the issue:

The One Florida Plan

One Florida was hastily assembled in order to preempt an impending ballot measure, which some speculated could turn out Black democratic voters, potentially swinging the state against George W. Bush in the razor-close 2000 election.

The executive order was drafted with little involvement from education officials, students or professors and quickly drew backlash from state Democratic lawmakers, who at one point staged a sit-in outside Bush’s Tallahassee office.

The governor’s plan would replace race-based admissions with a guarantee that the top 20% of graduates at every Florida high school would be admitted to at least one of the state’s public universities.

At the time, students and college officials worried that the move would push Black and Hispanic students out of the state system, or shift them to the state’s less selective institutions, similarly to what happened in California, which banned race-conscious admissions the year before.

Still, most university presidents reacted positively to the plan, and the state university system’s governing body, then called the Board of Regents, approved the governor’s plan unanimously.

The one dissenting voice was Charles E. Young, then-interim president at the University of Florida, who told faculty members that the plan could hurt minority enrollment at the university, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The school’s tough admissions standards could make it difficult to maintain diversity, Young told the St. Petersburg Times in 2000.

A widening gap?

As critics of One Florida had feared, almost as soon as the plan was approved by the State University System’s governing body, the share of Black and Hispanic students started falling, relative to their respective populations of high school seniors.

In 1999, 23% of Florida public high school seniors were Black. That fall, just 18% of undergraduate university freshmen were Black. In 2007, 22% of high school seniors were Black, but the share of freshmen had dropped to 15%.

But that trend was driven largely by declining enrollment at Florida A&M University, the state’s historically Black public university. At most of the state’s then-10 public universities, the share of Black students increased — even if they didn’t match the high school percentages.

The share of Black freshmen at the University of Florida increased from 11% to 14% from 1999 to 2007. The overall share of Black undergraduates at the school increased from 7% to 10%.

Among those schools with a declining share of Black students were Florida State University, where the share dropped from 11% to 9%, and University of South Florida, which saw a drop from 13% to 12%.

A similar pattern emerged for Hispanic students. In 1999, 16% of public high school seniors and 14% of university freshmen were Hispanic. In 2008, those numbers were 22% of high school seniors and 18% of freshmen.

Florida stands in stark contrast to California and Texas, both of which voted to ban race-conscious admissions around the same time.

In California, the gap between the share of high school graduates who were Black and the share of college freshmen who were Black quadrupled from 1994 to 2009, according to analysis from the Education Resource Network, a nonprofit aimed at promoting college access. The gap between Hispanic freshmen and high school graduates also increased by about 16 percentage points over those years, the study found.

A 2022 study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, found that students who would have gotten into the state’s top universities were pushed down to less selective institutions. The study of all 1994–2002 University of California applicants found that Black and Hispanic students who reached college age soon after the ban faced a life-long loss in income.

Freshman enrollment at Texas’ flagship school University of Texas at Austin dropped by 4% for Hispanic students and 34% for Black students in 1997, the first year that state banned race-based criteria, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. That share recovered to near pre-ban levels once the state imposed a plan similar to the Florida Top 20 plan, guaranteeing admission for the top 10% of each high school’s graduating class. But the admissions for Black and Hispanic students outside that 10% decreased, according to the commission’s analysis.

It’s not clear why the University of Florida bucked the trend in declining Black enrollment. While the impacts of removing race-conscious admissions have been widely studied in California and Texas, no such study exists for Florida.

The state maintained diversity goals for its public universities and there was no well-defined mechanism for preventing admissions staff from considering an applicant’s race, explicitly or implicitly.

What is clear is that the trend was short-lived.

The gap widens

The National Center for Education Statistics rolled out a new methodology for classifying race from 2008 to 2010, making it difficult to compare the share of Black and Hispanic students pre-2008 to those shares today.

But the data does indicate that some time in the past decade, Black and Hispanic students have become increasingly under-represented, especially at the state’s elite universities.

In the spring of 2021, 1 in 5 seniors from Florida public high schools were Black. That fall, they made up just 1 in 10 freshmen at one of Florida’s 12 public universities.

From 2010 to 2021, the share of freshmen at the University of Florida who are Black fell by half, from 9% to under 5%. At the University of South Florida, the share fell from 11.5% to 7.2% over the same span.

It’s a persistent gap that shows little sign of closing systemwide, and one that is rapidly growing at the state’s elite public universities.

Part of the issue may be that it’s harder to get into Florida’s elite schools. As UF, FSU and USF climb national rankings, entrance into those schools is becoming more competitive.

In 1999, the year One Florida was signed, 69% of freshmen students at UF were in the top 10% of their graduating class. By 2020, that number had climbed to 82%, according to university data.

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.