Friday, July 18, 2008

University of California Proposes Sweeping and Controversial Admissions Changes

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, July 17, 2008

The University of California is moving toward a major revision to its
admissions policy that would de-emphasize test scores and give the system's
nine undergraduate campuses greater flexibility in choosing their freshman

The plan, which was discussed on Wednesday at a meeting of the system's
Board of Regents, would be the biggest change to how the university
evaluates prospective students in at least a decade. It was proposed last
month by faculty leaders who argue that the system's strict eligibility
formula disqualifies deserving students, especially those from low-income
and minority backgrounds.

Since the 1960s, California's premier public-university system has promised
admission to at least one of its campuses to the top 12.5 percent of the
state's high-school graduates, as determined primarily by grades and test
scores. Under the faculty plan, the proportion of students who are
guaranteed a spot would be reduced to about the top 10 percent. The
remaining spots would go to students chosen by individual campuses, which
would more closely consider applicants' personal backgrounds.

The proposal would also ease the list of requirements that potential
undergraduates must complete before applying. Applicants would no longer
need to take an SAT II subject test or complete as many college-preparatory
classes in order to be considered.

Uncertainty Over Effects

At Wednesday's Board of Regents meeting, many regents appeared receptive to
the goals of the proposal, but they were unsure if it would work as
intended. Mark G. Yudof, the university's new president, told the regents
that he was "sympathetic on the merits," but that he would need more details
about the plan's possible effects on the university's diversity and academic

"I want to carefully assess this proposal," Mr. Yudof said. "It's one of the
most consequential things the regents will ever approve."

By putting more discretion in the hands of campus admissions officials, the
new policy would help to bring the university's admissions process more in
line with those of many private and public research universities, said David
A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher

The university's current admissions policy is unusual, Mr. Longanecker said,
because of the bright line the university draws between applicants who are
eligible for consideration and those who are not. All eligible applicants
are guaranteed a spot on a university campus, while nearly all ineligible
students are rejected outright.

The changes would probably have only a small effect on the university's
flagship campuses, at Berkeley and Los Angeles. Those branches already
comprehensively review each application they receive, taking into account
applicants' personal backgrounds, and they are too selective to be greatly
affected by the revised eligibility rules. But the system's less-selective
campuses, like those in Riverside and Merced, could see a substantial shift
in the makeup of their freshman classes.

Robert G. Jacobsen, a professor of physics at Berkeley and chairman of the
campus's faculty admissions committee, said the proposed admissions change
would have no effect on decisions on about two-thirds of applicants. The
bottom third, he said, "will be looked at in more depth, and we'll make
better decisions with those people."

Proponents of the plan say the university's current eligibility policy is a
maze of course and testing requirements that disqualifies too many
high-achieving students. Mark M. Rashid, a professor of engineering at the
university's Davis campus and chairman of the university faculty committee
that developed the proposal, said approximately 2,000 high-school graduates
a year with grade-point averages above 3.5 are not typically considered for
admission because they do not meet basic requirements, like taking the right
college-preparatory courses or the SAT II. These students, he said, are far
more racially and economically diverse than the applicant pool as a whole.

"These are students that the University of California should be bending over
backwards to be fair to, and yet we're just summarily declining them for
these trifling bureaucratic reasons," Mr. Rashid said.

Reluctance to Embrace a New Model

But the proposal has sparked resistance in California, where the
university's history and prominence ensure that each percentage change in
the admissions formula is analyzed for possible effects. Nearly a quarter of
the university faculty's own leadership opposed sending the plan to the
Board of Regents.

One major point of contention is the decrease in the number of students who
are guaranteed a spot on the campus. The University of California is tasked
by the state's Constitution and its master plan for public higher education
to serve the top one-eighth, or 12.5 percent, of the state's high-school
students. Since the 1960s, this has generally meant that students with the
highest grades and test scores would be admitted.

William J. Drummond, a journalism professor at Berkeley who chairs the
university's academic senate, said the university should not move away from
that successful model without better understanding the effects of the
proposed change. He said he fears the new eligibility rules will be less
transparent and more difficult to understand than the old ones.

"It's a change in substance as well as in symbol," Mr. Drummond said. "Ever
since the 1960s and the master plan, we've been telling kids from primary
school on up that if you work hard, we will guarantee you a place. Now we'll
just guarantee that you'll be reviewed."

It is also unknown how the revised admissions structure would affect racial
diversity. The new admissions proposal has been attacked from both sides of
the affirmative-action debate, with some people arguing it would serve as an
impediment to minority students and others saying it would be a back-door
way of renewing affirmative action, which has been banned in California
since 1996.

Ward Connerly, the former university regent who led the campaign to ban the
use of race in admissions, said he is not sure how the proposal will affect
campus diversity. He said, however, that an admissions system that involves
more subjective considerations could be vulnerable to a challenge.

"Someone I think could make a case, even with comprehensive review, that
race was a factor," he said.

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