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Boalt Hall Law School Kills Its Grade-Weighting Policy

Admissions: In bid to boost minorities, GPAs will not be adjusted based on quality of undergraduate institutions.

November 27, 1997|ELAINE WOO | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The faculty at UC Berkeley's highly ranked Boalt Hall School of Law has thrown out a controversial admissions policy that gave greater weight to the grades of applicants from elite colleges and universities, a move that supporters hope will boost the number of minorities who apply and are admitted.

Boalt, which has been struggling with a precipitous drop in new minority students--only one out of 14 African Americans granted admission enrolled this fall--will no longer add value to the grade-point averages of applicants from Harvard, for instance, and discount the GPAs of those from some of the Cal State or UC campuses.

The decision, which came in a 23-11 vote last Friday, was hailed as an important step forward for minority students in the midst of the UC system's elimination of affirmative action.

"The adjustment of GPAs was not supported by a sound educational purpose," said Joseph Jaramillo, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed a federal complaint against Boalt and its admissions policies this year. "It had the effect of disadvantaging minority students who attended many of the schools that were adjusted downward."

MALDEF filed its complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in March, alleging in part that Boalt discriminated against women and minorities by adding weight to the GPAs of applicants from elite Eastern colleges with few minority students.

Other experts downplayed Boalt's action, saying that law schools, as well as other graduate and professional schools, must take into account how good applicants' undergraduate institutions are.

"We think if you didn't consider the quality of the undergraduate school, it would be a travesty," said Michael Rappaport, dean of admissions at UCLA's Law School. "Let's be honest--a 3.5 from MIT in math doesn't mean the same thing as a 3.5 from another school, because of the level of competition in the student body."

The grade-weighting system was one element of Boalt's admissions process. Other factors, such as extracurricular achievements and scores on the standardized Law School Admissions Test, are also considered.

Boalt Hall officials maintained Wednesday that the school's grade-weighting formula did not disadvantage minority applicants.

But "we are concerned that the message is going out that [minorities] are not welcome here, or that we are not trying hard enough" to be fair, said Boalt Assistant Dean Lujuana Treadwell. "We thought that was reason enough to make the change."

Associate Dean Robert Cole, who chaired the Boalt committee that recommended the change, said no one can predict whether the new policy will result in more minorities gaining admission. "I don't think anybody thinks it's going to make a huge difference," he said.

However, Cole said that the move would attract attention among law schools nationally.

Boalt is among a sizable minority of U.S. law schools that give different values to applicants' GPAs depending on their undergraduate institutions, Treadwell said, citing figures from the Law School Admissions Council, which develops the LSAT. Grade weighting is common in the top tier of law schools nationwide, she said.

Boalt officials said their policy was established 15 years ago, in large part to address fears that grade inflation made some of the marks less valuable than others. Another reason for the practice was to eliminate admissions officers' inconsistent and subjective judgments about applicants' schools by establishing a uniform ranking system.

Thus, under Boalt's procedures, applicants' grades were put into a computer and adjusted according to a formula that assigned each college a "rank number" based on how its students performed on the LSAT.

Under this method, applicants from schools that were ranked 79 and above--such as Yale, Brandeis, Stanford and Harvard--were given extra points in the admissions process, while those from institutions ranked 71.9 and below--including most of the CSU campuses--had their GPAs lowered. Those schools with ranks in between neither gained nor lost points.

Boalt's new policy was cheered by other educators, particularly in the CSU system.

"I think it's a giant step forward," said Robert Maxson, Cal State Long Beach president, who added that many of his students have expressed concern about grade weighting.

The UCLA Law School's grade-weighting policy differs widely from Boalt's. The Southland institution does not knock points off any application because of the undergraduate college or university. It also adds value to the GPA of any applicant from a UC campus.

"I was surprised that Boalt didn't value its own undergraduates enough," Rappaport said. Under Boalt's system, UC Berkeley graduates were given a 78.5 ranking, which meant they were neither rewarded nor penalized for their GPAs.

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