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'Adjusting' for Fairness in Admissions Practices

Measure passed by state Legislature requires UC, CSU campuses to disclose how grade point averages are figured in the process.

September 20, 1998|MELANIE HAVENS | Melanie Havens is an attorney and a professor of business law and director of graduate programs at Cal State Northridge

It was amid much hubbub last summer that UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law announced that it routinely "adjusted" the grade point averages (GPAs) of applicants based on Boalt's evaluation of the applicant's undergraduate school. It was with considerably less fanfare that the school abandoned the practice. And it was with barely a whisper that the University of California disclosed that this system continues to exist at two UC campuses: UCLA and UC San Diego.

"Grade adjustments" is the term euphemistically given to describe the process of changing an applicant's GPA based on the admissions committee's evaluation of the applicant's undergraduate college. If an applicant got, for example, a "B" average in college (a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale) the institution could raise the GPA, for example, to 3.2 if the committee were impressed with the applicant's college, or lower it, for example, to 2.8, if they thought little of the school. Since an applicant's GPA is so important in determining admission to graduate school, these adjustments have enormous impact on the applicant's future. Boalt's "adjustments" favored students at elite, private colleges at the expense of students attending state colleges and universities. The GPAs of every Cal State applicant, for example, were lowered under the system. The effect was that UC Berkeley, a state-supported institution, discriminated against applicants from its fellow state-supported colleges.

This disclosure ironically enough came on the heels of Proposition 209, which prohibited preferences based on race, nationality or sex. With a voter mandate to evaluate students on merit alone, Boalt's system surreptitiously created reverse discrimination because students at elite, private institutions are disproportionately white and financially privileged, while students at state-supported schools are disproportionately racial or ethnic minorities, or not financially privileged. Therefore, although Proposition 209 alleviated any affirmative action practices, Boalt's GPA "preferences" actually discriminated against less-represented, less-affluent students.

State Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood) introduced a bill, SB 1752, passed by the Legislature and awaiting the governor's signature, requiring that any UCs or CSUs using such adjustments notify the applicants, on request, of their methodology. This seems only rational and fair, because students need some ability to realistically assess their prospects of achieving entry into California's prestigious professional and graduate programs. Mind you, this is not a case of legislative intervention in the admissions process. Hughes' measure does not prohibit the practice, rather simply requires that the universities disclose its existence. It seems hard to argue that a state supported institution not be required to disclose its admissions practices to the taxpayers of the state of California and to the graduates of its colleges and universities.

Last fall, I wrote about a student of extraordinary abilities: The son of immigrants, he did not speak English until he started school. He excelled at Cal State Northridge despite working 20 hours a week at various jobs and another 10 hours a week helping his father, who is a truck driver. He continues to translate for his mother, who does not speak English. He had exceptional abilities of analytical thinking and a marvelously clear, coherent writing ability. I have rarely read papers as clearly written and well reasoned by students, or for that matter, by practicing attorneys. He graduated summa cum laude with a GPA of 3.9, of a possible 4.0.

Comparing his college performance (astonishing!) with my own (fine, but not exactly stellar), I observed that since my grades came from an Ivy League school, my GPA would be raised while his would be lowered as a penalty for having attended CSUN. How did he do? This amazing student went on to slay the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and to apply to an impressive array of law schools: Harvard, Yale, Boalt, Stanford, UCLA, University of Chicago, and NYU. He got in. To all of them.

Congratulations to Alfredo Torrijos who entered Stanford Law School this fall. And here's hope that the elected representatives of the state of California have legislated fairness by requiring that the state's universities disclose admissions practices that are truly fair.

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