John Moores, chairman of the University of California board of regents, recently ignited a firestorm of controversy when he released two reports on UC’s admissions process. The reports found that students with low test scores were being admitted to UC Berkeley and that many such students dropped out. The conclusion is that UC is operating a racial-balancing scheme that isn’t working.
Moores’s first report contained data showing that 3,218 students with SAT I scores of 1,400 or higher were denied entry into UC Berkeley in 2002. The SAT I, a basic aptitude test, has a top score of 1,600. It’s true that many straight-A students with high test scores don’t get into UC Berkeley–there just aren’t enough spaces. However, Moores discovered that Berkeley admitted 374 students with SAT I scores of only 600 to 1,000. The average score for admission into Berkeley is 1,337.
In his second report, Moores found that the dropout rate for low-SAT I students at Berkeley was higher than for other students. In 2002-03, students admitted with SAT I scores of less than 1,000 dropped out at twice the rate of rest of their class. These students, says Moores, are much less likely to maintain “good academic standing” than other students with better test scores. Low-SAT I students also had grades that were half a point lower on average than other students.
How are lower-scoring students allowed to enter UC Berkeley and other elite UC campuses over their higher-scoring peers? For two years the UC system has used a “comprehensive review” process that allows students with low grade-point averages and test scores into UC if they have had difficult life experiences. These challenging experiences could include, among others, disabilities, low family income, and disadvantaged social or educational environments.
To demonstrate how comprehensive review operates, UC Berkeley officials recently showed reporters the application of a Vietnamese student who had only a 910 SAT I score, but who was accepted because she spent 27 hours a week helping her family run their business. It is ironic that Berkeley officials used the example of an Asian student, because it’s actually blacks and Hispanics who are mainly benefiting from the comprehensive-review process.
Although race is not overtly mentioned as a factor in the comprehensive-review admissions process, the numbers indicate that it plays a significant role. A Los Angeles Times analysis shows that at UC Berkeley, low-scoring blacks and Hispanics were admitted at twice the rate of similarly scoring Asians and whites. Also, the Times found low-scoring blacks and Hispanics were 25 percent more likely to be admitted into UCLA than similarly scoring Asians and whites. In 2002 and 2003, about 1,500 low-scoring students were admitted to the two campuses.
UC officials do not admit that comprehensive review is an end-run around Proposition 209, the voter-passed initiative that banned government-sponsored race and gender preferences, but simply repeat their commitment to student diversity at UC campuses. Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Sharon Browne, who has successfully litigated key Prop. 209 cases, says, however, that there is no “diversity” exception under 209.
A high-level UC source recently told me that the UC’s outreach programs were making a mockery of the university’s comprehensive-review admissions system. Outreach counselors are going to high schools and training minority students to write sob stories that would help the students gain admission. The source agreed with my characterization of this activity as teaching students to “game” the system.
Gaming the system creates victims. An Asian high-school student laments: “I understand they’re just trying to give more opportunity and bring success to the other [ethnic groups], but what about those Asians who were more qualified and got rejected because of someone less qualified? Do they not deserve success after all their hard work? Since when does a hard life make a person more qualified than a person who worked hard?”
UC Berkeley officials have commissioned a faculty examination of the school’s admissions practices. UC president Robert Dynes has also put together a committee to look at admissions procedures. Don’t expect anything but a whitewash from these internal investigations, though. Comprehensive review might not be fair to the high-scoring students who are turned down by Berkeley and UCLA, but who ever said this was about fairness?
–Lance T. Izumi is director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy.