UC Admissions: Slouching Toward Affirmative Action?

Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee, November 7, 2007

Any plan to change the undergraduate admissions system at the University of California is likely to bring charges that it’s yet another politically correct attempt to reinstitute race preferences. That applies especially to reforms that de-emphasize grades and test scores.

A set of major revisions now proposed by BOARS, UC’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, will be no exception. It would make more high school graduates eligible for consideration for UC but end the virtual guarantee of eligibility that students with high grades and test scores—those in the hypothetical top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates, many of them Asians—now enjoy.

Only those in the top 4 percent in their respective schools would still be guaranteed a place in the system.

Yet complex as they are, the proposals and BOARS’ analysis of the flaws of the existing system are buffered with enough reasoning to be worth the debate, if not the backlash that could follow if they’re adopted.

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The board, said BOARS chairman Mark Rashid, an engineering professor at UC Davis, would like to loosen the “prefilter” now imposed by the eligibility requirement and put more weight on the comprehensive review of each applicant at the campuses to which the student applies.

There would still be minimum requirements—completion of the 15 “a-to-g” courses—English, math, science, social studies, etc.—that UC demands, a GPA of 2.8 or higher in those courses and the SAT Reasoning Test, formerly the SAT I.

But the SAT II subject-matter tests would no longer be required. Since the SAT I was revised to include writing and more substantive math items, UC believes, scores on the SAT II tests contribute little additional information in predicting whether an applicant will be successful at the university.

At the same time, BOARS says, because a large percentage of poor, Latino and black students don’t take the SAT II tests, that requirement alone—not grades or test scores—has shut out a large percentage of those groups from the pool of eligibles. The largest disqualifying factor among students taking the “a-to-g” courses is students’ failure to take the SAT II tests.

Moreover, says Rashid, the current guarantee of eligibility for students with a combination of high grades and test scores adds almost nothing in practical terms. Students who are guaranteed eligibility for UC but aren’t admitted to the campuses to which they apply are bumped to a campus—inevitably Riverside or Merced—where there is space. But almost nobody takes those offers.

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Obviously, elimination of the SAT II requirement doesn’t mean that thousands more applicants will be admitted. But it would enlarge the pool from which campuses can choose. And it’s here that the plan becomes vulnerable to criticism and dispute.

Leaving aside suspicions of bad faith by admissions officers—that in applying the more squishy criteria of comprehensive review, they’ll pursue diversity and overlook competence by giving blacks and Latinos preferences, either consciously or otherwise—the system will still find it tougher to justify its decisions.

When hard numbers—tests, grades—are used at least to define eligibility for the pool from which campuses choose, decisions can always be defended with “objective” facts. That those numbers sometimes don’t mean much doesn’t make the alternative criteria any easier to defend. And, of course, the numbers do mean something. There may not be much difference between 650 and 700 on an SAT math test, but there surely is between 500 and 750.

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