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Race, Not Equity, Is Behind the UC System's 4% Rule

January 19, 2002|ROGER ARNOLD

Why does the University of California discriminate against students who go to the wrong high schools?

The wrong high school is one with a high percentage of high achievers, which makes the right high school the one with a high percentage of low achievers.

Here are the details: In fall 2001, the UC system implemented the Eligibility in Local Context program, commonly known as the 4% program. Under this program, the top 4% of students in each participating California high school class are guaranteed admission to one of the eight UC general campuses. Five of the eight campuses are among the top 10 public universities in the nation; UC Berkeley is ranked No. 1.

What the program says to high school students is this: If you are a high achiever in a school of low achievers you have a better chance of being admitted to the UC system than if you are a high achiever in a school of high achievers.

To understand how this plays out, consider two students in two high schools, A and B. The median grade point average in high school A is 3.30; the median grade point average in high school B is 3.90. Joe, who attends high school A, has a GPA of 3.80, which puts him in the top 4% of students. Erica, who attends high school B, has a GPA of 4.30, which puts her just outside the top 4%. Both Joe and Erica desperately want to attend a UC school. Come fall, Joe will but Erica will not.

Erica wonders why Joe, with a lower GPA, was admitted to the UC system and she was not.

The UC system says the plan was developed to recognize that student achievement is relative to the educational opportunities available at individual schools.

Student achievement may be relative--but within individual schools? Why not within a given city or state?

If the UC system had chosen a larger pool--such as the state--it could not then do what it really wants to do: choose students based on race. The fact is, the smaller the pool, the more race comes into play. Just as families are more racially homogeneous than any given school, any given school is more racially homogeneous than any given state.

If your objective is to choose students according to race, you want the smallest politically acceptable unit that is racially homogeneous. That's the school.

If the University of California didn't want the school and only the school to matter, it would admit the top 4% of students in each high school only if each student achieved a certain ranking on the SAT. But it doesn't do this because bringing the SAT into the picture moves the pool from small (school) to big (country) and therefore diminishes the role race plays.

The University of California knows what it is doing. It knows that it is choosing students based on race. It knows that it is "taxing" some students and "subsidizing" others.

It knows that the Ericas of the world exist. It simply doesn't care. And furthermore, it believes that what it wants to do is the morally right thing to do.

That is the part that rankles.


Roger Arnold is professor of economics at California State University San Marcos.

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