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Study Links UC Entry, Social Class

High schools that send many graduates to UC are in affluent areas; low-income schools send fewer students, researchers find.

November 19, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Social class has had more effect on whether a student will attend the University of California system than any other factor, including race, according to a new study of California high schools by UC Berkeley sociologists.

One of five students admitted to the UC system in 1999 came from 100 elite private and public schools, the study of California high schools found. By contrast, fewer than one out of 200 students who were admitted were from schools that had low-income and heavily minority student bodies.

The top "feeder" schools, which send the highest percentage of graduates to UC, are nearly all private and located in San Francisco or Los Angeles suburbs. Many of the schools in the state that send the fewest students to UC are in the Central Valley or in low-income urban areas of Los Angeles County.

It may be no surprise that wealthy students have educational advantages, but "what's surprising is how strong the association is" between affluence and UC admission, said Isaac Martin, a coauthor of the study with sociologist Jerome Karabel and Los Angeles lawyer Sean Jaquez.

Karabel headed a 1989 commission that helped establish UC Berkeley's undergraduate admissions policies with regard to race and class in the 1990s.

The sociologists' study emerges as UC officials find their admissions practices under criticism from a very different quarter. A report by UC Board of Regents' President John Moores recently called into question Berkeley's admission of hundreds of students in 2002 who had SAT scores of 1000 or below. The top score is 1600.

The sociologists' study did not examine SAT scores and grades for individual applicants or schools. But Martin said the probable reason for the dramatic differences in UC admission is that students from better schools have higher test scores and have done more advanced course work.

"Students who go to these privileged schools have all kinds of resources that permit them to meet UC's admissions standards," he said.

Stronger teachers, curriculum and college guidance give "a few lucky students ... a royal road to UC, while others are stuck in schools with almost no access," said Martin, a sociologist with the UC Institute for Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley.

Arcadia High School sent more graduates to UC in 1999 than the bottom 50 schools combined, the study found.

Barbara Sawrey, a UC San Diego professor who heads the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, said UC is attempting to be more accessible to low-income students, especially those from high schools that send few students to the system.

In 2001, after the period covered by the study, the system began a program to guarantee a slot at a UC campus -- though not necessarily the campus of choice -- to any student ranked in the top 4% of the graduating class at any public or private California high school that participates in the program. And beginning in 2002, the admissions policy gave more consideration than before to factors such as the quality of an applicant's high school and personal attributes such as leadership and an ability to overcome hardships.

A UC assessment of new policies, however, found they did not substantially raise the percentage of low-income, first-generation college students at UC campuses.

Between 1999 and 2003, the percentage of first-generation college students admitted to UC rose from 30.8 to 32.4, "a modest increase," Sawrey said.

Meaningfully reducing the disparities in UC admission will require a commitment by "teachers at the schools, school boards, families, everybody in education" to improve K-12 education and encourage students to attend college, Sawrey said.

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said UC could do more for low-income students, such as expanding outreach efforts to high schools, but "you can only solve so many problems at the admissions office."

Solutions need to address "K-12 education, family income, poverty, etc.," he said.

The defining trait of the top feeder high schools was a high education level among parents. At the 50 public schools with the highest percentage of UC entrants, nearly 38% of parents had attended graduate school; at the bottom 50, fewer than 5% of parents had some postgraduate education.

Parental income was also important. Only about 8% of students at the top 50 public schools received subsidized meals, compared with 46% at the bottom 50 schools.

Race was less of a factor, particularly among black students. African Americans made up about 7% of students at the top 50 schools and 9% of students at the bottom 50.

Nearly 10% of students at the top 50 feeders were Latino, compared with Latino enrollment of about 36% at the bottom 50 schools.

Elite private schools had the highest percentage of graduates admitted to UC, with nine schools posting UC acceptance rates higher than 70%. Only one public school -- Whitney High, a selective school in Cerritos -- had such a high UC acceptance rate.

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