New UC eligibility standards will open college doors, but may change demographics

(February 16, 2009)
By Lisa M. Krieger
Published: 2/14/2009
A controversial new policy at the University of California will open the country’s premier public university system to a wider array of applicants, creating campuses that could be less Asian and more white, with a few more African-Americans and a modest climb in the number of Latinos.
In overhauling its eligibility requirements, UC has eliminated SAT subject tests and agreed to consider lower-ranking students. The plan would broaden the socioeconomic and racial diversity of the applicant pool and offer admissions offices more flexibility in creating a freshman class.
UC leaders have been distressed over the widening achievement gap on their campuses. The impact of the new policy, according to UC’s preliminary analysis, would be to simplify the application process and cast a wider net among promising low-income students.
While not guaranteeing admission, it would at least give more students the benefit of a closer look of both academic and nonacademic criteria such as leadership, life experiences and ability to handle adversity. Each UC campus will continue to make its own acceptance decisions.
It’s a consequential shift for the UC system, reflecting its effort to balance competing pressures: Should it keep picking the best students statewide? Or as a public education system, should it better represent the state population?
“In my mind, it is a clear departure from the Master Plan, adopted 50 years ago,” said Steve Boilard of the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, which assessed the new policy. “It will really change access to the state’s public research universities.”
Incoming class in 2012
The new policy applies to students entering college in fall 2012; they are now high school freshmen. It:
n”‚Eliminates “subject tests,” called SAT IIs, in which students are tested on classroom material such as chemistry, biology or English literature. UC is the only public university in the country to require students to take two such tests, although top private schools, such as Harvard and Stanford Universities and the California Institute of Technology, either require or recommend them. The SAT I, which measures general aptitude in math, reading and writing, is still required by UC.
n”‚Significantly increases the number of students eligible to apply from each high school — from the top 4 percent to the top 9 percent, as long as their GPA is at least a “weighted” 3.0, up from a current “unweighed” minimum of 2.8. All candidates are promised a review of their resumes and essays.
n”‚Reduces the number of students who are guaranteed UC admission — from 12.5 percent to 9 percent of the state’s high school graduates.
“We are a public university,” UC President Mark Yudof said. “We have to be a place that provides opportunity and socioeconomic mobility.”
But by moving UC away from its original goals — by promising to review applications of the top 9 percent of graduates from every high school, rather than guaranteeing admission to the top 12.5 percent of students in the entire state — critics fear the institution could weaken its academic rigor.
“It falsely suggests that the top 9 percent of students at the worst school in the state are academically equivalent to the top 9 percent of students at the best school,” said Jay Schalin of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education in Raleigh, N.C.
Signed into law by Gov. Pat Brown in 1960s, California’s educational Master Plan designated UC as the state’s research institution — and the training ground for the state’s future doctors, lawyers, economists and other professionals. Students who weren’t as academically strong were steered to the California State University or community colleges.
Lopsided population
But that approach has given UC a lopsided population because strong students at poor high schools, who are overwhelmingly Latino and African-American, failed to qualify. And although Asians account for only 12 percent of the state’s population, they represent 37 percent of UC admissions.
A preliminary analysis of the new changes predicts that the number of Asians admitted to UC could decrease because Asians tend to do well on the “subject tests,” which are no longer part of the application.
The number of admitted whites could increase. In past years, whites have been more likely to apply to middle-tier private schools that don’t require “subject tests,” so often skip them — cutting off their access to UC if they change their minds, said UC-Davis professor Mark Rashid, who headed the faculty committee that created the new admissions policy. But he added that the increase in admitted whites may not translate into boosted enrollment, because they may decide to go elsewhere.
Admission of African-Americans and Latinos may climb. African-Americans and Latinos have been less likely to take “subject tests,” because the tests are expensive and students didn’t recognize their importance until too late.
African-Americans and Latinos also could benefit from the expanded class-ranking criteria, because top students from troubled schools such as San Jose’s Lick High School could be UC-eligible.
The intent is not to “racially engineer” the student body, Rashid said. “It is a legitimate hope to increase access of those who have been disenfranchised,” he said. “But did we engineer it to achieve that? No.”
Rising applications
The changes are predicted to cause a 12 percent to 17 percent rise in applications. Because most UC campuses can’t grow, admission could become more selective at some campuses. The pressure is likely to be most pronounced at “middle tier” schools — such as UC-Davis, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Irvine — where students who were once ineligible might now apply.
It’s unlikely to affect the top-tier UC-Berkeley and UC-Los Angeles campuses, because the newly eligible students are expected to be less academically qualified than their typical applicants.
Move draws fire
The changes to the traditional system have triggered howls of opposition from a variety of groups.
“The university has essentially lowered its standards,” said Ward Connerly, the former regent who designed Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that banned the use of race as a factor in admissions. He accused UC of evading the meaning and spirit of the initiative.
Also angry are Asian-American organizations. They contend that subject tests are a better indicator of college readiness than the SAT I, which favors American-born students over immigrants because scores are influenced by expensive “test prep” and family upbringing.
Asian-American leaders have long been suspicious that UC holds their youth to higher standards than other ethnic groups. The state should take pride in the large number of Asian-American students who have succeeded at UC, said Vincent Pan, director of Chinese for Affirmative Action.
In a January memo to the state Legislature, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said it may be time to rethink the Master Plan, but criticized the new strategy.
“It is fair to ask whether the Master Plan is still the best approach,” said the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s Boilard. “My only concern is rather than UC making the decision on its own, there should be a larger conversation with the Legislature and the public.”
Publication: San Jose Mercury News