This year, landmark legislation made college in Washington more affordable, and in some cases, free. Months before, Seattle residents voted to give the city’s public high-school graduates two free years of community-college tuition.

But who will ultimately benefit from these efforts?

The answer to that question became complicated this month, when voters narrowly rejected Referendum 88, a measure that would have allowed state universities to consider race when deciding who to admit. The vote also bars other public institutions from using affirmative action to make hiring or contracting decisions. The measure was on the ballot because lawmakers repealed the state’s decadeslong affirmative-action ban in April, but anti-affirmative action groups filed a referendum to put the issue to a public vote.

The measure wouldn’t have allowed universities to set racial quotas. But for the first time since 1998, when residents first voted to end affirmative action, it would have given universities leeway to consider race as one factor among many.

Washington is one of eight states that bars the consideration of race in college admissions. And like other states with bans, Washington’s law may be responsible for lasting effects on the racial makeup of its top public universities.

If it had passed, experts say, the referendum would probably have altered enrollment most significantly at the state’s selective universities, had they decided to include race. The referendum likely wouldn’t have affected admissions at less selective places, such as community colleges.

Officials at the state’s top public universities say they intend to continue using other methods to recruit a racially diverse student body. But these universities may be hard-pressed to do so, some say.

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“What I would ask people to consider is, how do you guarantee unrepresented enrollment without considering the underrepresentation itself?” said Richard Baker, who heads the board of directors of the Washington D.C.-based American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. “If you don’t, it is possible that you will never fully address the underrepresentation.”

The year after residents voted to end the practice in 1998, the percentage of University of Washington freshman students who identified as underrepresented minorities, not including Asian, dropped from 8.8% to 5.6%. Applications from racial minorities dropped, too, suggesting the new law had a chilling effect outside the admissions office.

News and publicity about the law may have caused some students to think, “the University of Washington wasn’t the place for them,” said Charles Hirschman, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Washington, who has published research on the law’s effects.

UW enrollment looks different now. For one, the chilling effect at UW was short-lived: applications and enrollment among overall minorities rebounded by 2002, and have since grown, UW data shows.  This fall, more than 15% of freshmen identify as a racial minority, not including those who identify as Asian. The university is also exceedingly selective in who it admits, letting in about 52% of all applicants, compared to around 80% in the late 1990s.

But the mix of students attending UW hasn’t kept pace with the state’s growing racial diversity. For instance, state data shows that about 5% of college-age Washingtonians identify as black, but only 3% of UW undergraduates do — the same percentage as black students enrolled in 1998. The percentage of American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who have always made up a small portion of undergraduate enrollment, have dropped since that time.

Some groups that have long been greatly overrepresented, including Asian people, are enrolling at increasing rates. About 9% of the state’s college-age students identify as Asian, but this group makes up about 24% of UW’s undergraduate enrollment. In 1998, that number was 21%.

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UW has also become more attractive to international students: 2.2% of UW’s undergraduates were from other countries in 1998, but that figure has since jumped to nearly 15%.

Hispanic and Latino student enrollment has jumped from about 4% to 8% of total undergraduate enrollment during that time.

Paul Seegert was three months fresh into a new job as a UW admissions counselor when the 1998 law passed. Seegert, now director of admissions at the university, said “there’s no way to know for sure” if this month’s vote will send the same signal as the one sent in the late 1990s.

But had the November referendum gone the other way, Seegert added, UW would have incorporated race into its admissions decisions — possibly breaking down barriers for students of color in the process.

“It just would have been a matter of how,” he said. “Because we never did determine how that would all work, it’s impossible to know exactly what the result would be. My guess is it would have helped us some with diversity.”

But nothing will change about how the UW admits its students, Seegert said. UW admissions officers prioritize the rigor of classes students take and the grades they receive, but also weigh test scores, activities and achievements and whether students challenge themselves in their senior year. They also consider whether students have overcome obstacles, come from low-income families or would be the first in their family to go to college.

One commonsense way to drive up underrepresented student enrollment is to focus on recruiting a more diverse set of applicants, Hirschman said.

The university’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity is dedicated to doing that, said Patricia Loera, UW’s associate vice president of college access.

UW has had this commitment for at least 45 years, she said, but its efforts ramped up after the 1998 law passed. At that time, UW hired six admissions counselors dedicated to recruiting racial minorities and other unrepresented students.

The current counselors all identify as people of color and travel around the state to meet with students, Loera said. They pay particular attention to middle and high schools where a majority of students are low-income.

But the UW is facing a “very real” uphill battle in attracting these students, she said. Loera has a $1 million annual budget, she said, which covers the salaries of the counselors, recruitment events, overhead costs and little else. The counselors can’t reach every student who has a good shot at getting into UW, she said, including those who attend middle- or higher-income schools.

“We’re doing the best we can and making the best investments we can with what we have,” she said. “There’s definitely more we could do.”