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Poor Timing, Good Policy

November 25, 2001

"University admissions" are fighting words in California any time of year. But the UC regents could have chosen a better month to adopt a new admissions policy than November, when applications are due and students and their parents are already frantic. The policy itself, thankfully, is better than the regents' timing.

All applicants who take the prescribed high school courses and meet UC grade and test score requirements or graduate in the top 4% of their class continue to be guaranteed admission to at least one UC campus.

What changes is how the system's flagship universities choose students from this pool. Under the new "comprehensive review" policy, campuses with more qualified applicants than spaces available will be allowed to consider special talent, leadership skills or hardships overcome, in addition to grades and test scores. Although all applicants are required to write personal essays listing achievements, the top universities until now had to base 50% to 75% of admissions on academics alone.

Critics immediately charged that comprehensive review would lower standards at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the system's star campuses. Others complained that the new policy set too high a standard, requiring extraordinary accomplishments from middle-class adolescents who grew up without hardships to surmount. Some labeled it a ruse to revive the race-based preferences banned by California voters five years ago.

UC Berkeley indeed began experimenting with comprehensive review in 1998, the year the regents' ban on affirmative action went into effect for undergraduates. (The regents in May rescinded the ban, a largely symbolic gesture given the 1996 passage of statewide Proposition 209.) But the Berkeley faculty had been discussing the more comprehensive approach before the ban.

Politics aside--and yes, state legislators have pressured UC to reverse a drop in minority enrollment--supporters mount a sound argument for an admissions policy that is after all used by Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other top universities.

UC President Richard C. Atkinson, a cognitive psychologist who has spent a lifetime studying learning and testing, argues that academic measures such as grades and test scores, while important, are not the sole gauge of who will become a successful student or a leader in science, business, politics or the arts. Motivation, discipline, tenacity and intellectual curiosity are among the traits the broader admissions policy seeks.

That the idea of looking for people who are well-rounded as well as good scholars would anger some students and parents has to do with how few slots there are at the top schools. For its fall 2001 freshman class, UC Berkeley accepted only a quarter of more than 35,000 applicants, even though almost half made straight A's. With increased competition come complaints about who didn't make the cut, particularly from parents who grew up in a less crowded California where good students were all but entitled to admission to their school of choice.

Those who believe that comprehensive review is fuzzy and subjective can take some comfort from UC Berkeley's four-year experiment. Admission officers rated every application using 10 academic and four supplemental criteria but until now were required to base 50% of admission offers solely on academics. A recent review showed that of 1,000 students admitted under the 10 academic criteria, 96% would also have been admitted using the full 14, hardly a wholesale abandonment of grades and test scores. Another study showed that the freshman classes admitted under comprehensive review did better than previous classes by such traditional measures as grade point averages and continued enrollment.

If these studies are not reassuring enough, the regents also asked for yearly reports on the new policy. This being California, they can expect the toughest scrutiny.

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