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Questioning the System? Affirmative : Education: News that the UC system could scrap its affirmative action program has high school counselors worried. 'I hope they . . . think this through,' says one.


Affirmative action was the subject last week when Esther Hugo's College Peer Counselors--a student outreach group--gathered for its weekly meeting at Westchester High School.

"We talk about anything that affects students," says Hugo, the school's college counselor, "and they were concerned about the news that the University of California Board of Regents may drop its affirmative action program for admissions.

"They were confused, and so was I," Hugo says. "The regents seemed to be saying we no longer need affirmative action, and the students found this discouraging. Westchester is a predominantly African American population, and our figures are good--we sent 50% of our seniors to four-year schools and 40% to two-year schools last year. But African American college numbers in general are still small."

"All our kids this year have already applied, so it doesn't affect them," said Mike diDonato, a counselor at Costa Mesa High School. "I really can't tell what effect it might have next year."

Uncertainty and confusion were just two of the reactions as high schools throughout the state pondered the news last week that affirmative action could be scrapped by the prestigious UC system, whose admissions are designed to select from the top 12% of the state's graduating high school seniors every year.

UC Regent Ward Connerly, a Sacramento businessman, introduced the issue earlier this month in San Francisco at meetings of the board and of its affirmative action committee. Connerly, an African American, told the board that he thinks the UC system gives too much weight to gender and race when picking students in the highly competitive admissions process, and he wants an alternative to what he sees as race-based admissions.

Affirmative action was necessary in 1965, but it isn't today, Connerly told the committee. "It's reached a point of diminishing returns."

That's not how the situation looks from the college counselor viewpoint. "I haven't seen any evidence of race being a dominant factor," says Hugo, a board member of the Western Assn. of College Admission Counselors and High School College Counselors.

"I was on the UCLA admissions committee last year, and all the applications I read were UC eligible," she says. "The test scores might have been a little bit flexible, but all the students were in the arena in terms of preparation and capability."

What Connerly would change is a longtime UC policy that a student body should represent the cultural, racial, economic and social diversity of the state of California.

To achieve this, the nine UC campuses enroll about 60% of their students on the basis of grades and tests, including SATs (Scholastic Assessment Tests). In the belief that test scores are not the only measure of student potential, admissions offices enroll 40% on the basis of grades and other factors, including special talents and experiences, income, family background, race and ethnicity.

Connerly maintains this system has been corrupted. "We are relying on race and ethnicity not as one of many factors, but as a dominant factor to the exclusion of all others," he told the regents.

This charge has raised protest mixed with dismay throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District high schools, where every faculty has a college counselor devoting at least part of his or her time to encouraging all students to think of themselves as college-bound.

Like Hugo, these counselors work with large numbers of students who because of language or economic disadvantages don't automatically plan on college. But groundwork--ranging from college nights and rigorous curriculum planning to preliminary scholastic tests and a constant push for scholarships--pays off, the counselors say. District figures show that almost eight out of 10 LAUSD high school graduates in 1994 went on to some sort of higher education.

"I don't see anything wrong with the system," Hugo says. "I don't understand why this is being mentioned at all. It seems to me you would want to educate all segments of your population. It doesn't seem very democratic for the UC system to pull out this kind of support."

No action has been taken; Connerly's proposal is still in the talking stage. He says he hopes to formally propose it to the board in June.

"I hope they have the wisdom to think this through before they make a decision," says Cassandra Roy at Crenshaw High School, where the college-going rate is 80%. "He may know something I don't, but from where I sit, I see students going to school and staying there for four years. I see the system working."

"This is just one more thing--it's the mood of the country and the mood of the state, and I can't wait until it passes," says Audrey Smith at John Marshall High School. "It is anti-'them' and in this case 'them' means ethnicity."

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