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UC Berkeley Admissions Scrutinized

Study finds hundreds of highly qualified applicants were rejected in favor of freshmen who were 'marginally academically qualified.'

October 04, 2003|Rebecca Trounson, Tony Perry and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

UC Berkeley, the University of California's oldest and most prestigious campus, admitted hundreds of freshmen in 2002 who were "marginally academically qualified" at the expense of many more highly qualified applicants, according to a confidential report obtained by The Times.

The preliminary analysis of UC Berkeley admissions, prepared for the UC Board of Regents, showed that nearly 400 students were admitted to the campus in 2002 with scores of 600 to 1000 on the SAT entrance exam, far below the 1337 average SAT score for last year's admitted class. Sixteen hundred on the test is considered a perfect score.

The report also shows that more than 600 applicants with scores on the SAT of 1500 or above were not admitted, along with nearly 2,600 others with scores from 1400 to 1500. Berkeley officials say many of the rejected students with high SATs had relatively low grade-point averages.

Overall, the document finds, the admissions process at UC Berkeley "might not be compatible with [the school's] goal of maintaining academic excellence."

The report was prepared at the request of regents Chairman John J. Moores. It is based on university data, but contains extensive analysis that primarily was written by Moores. The report does not attempt to explain the reasons for UC Berkeley's admissions patterns. It does not break down admissions by race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, nor does it measure changes over time.

But it urges a more comprehensive study of admissions -- including some of these factors -- at Berkeley and the university's seven other undergraduate campuses.

One regent, Ward Connerly, said Berkeley's flexible standards might be an attempt to get around the state's ban on affirmative action and admit more underrepresented minority students.

The analysis provides a highly unusual window into the student admissions process at UC Berkeley, one that -- despite the institution's status as one of the top public universities in the nation -- is largely hidden from public view.

UC Berkeley officials and faculty members acknowledged that the statistics in the report are generally accurate, but cautioned that in some instances the data were misinterpreted or misunderstood. They strongly defended their admissions practices, saying that academics are the leading criterion in all decisions, apart from a small number of exceptions for those with "exceptional personal talent" -- often athletes.

The campus is "in full compliance with the regents' stated policy on admissions," said David Stern, a UC Berkeley education professor who heads its admissions committee.

But he and others at the campus also acknowledged that 381 students -- 3.5% of the admitted students that year -- were invited to enroll in 2002 despite test scores far below the average for Berkeley students, or applicants. All had "other indicators of academic strength," Stern said, adding that SAT scores alone are not the best predictor of success at the university.

Of those, 236 -- or about 5% of the entering class -- enrolled at the campus, the report shows.

Richard Black, UC Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor for admission and enrollment, said the students with the 600 to 1000 SAT scores were accepted largely because they "made the most of the opportunities that were available to them."

He explained that a "substantial portion" of the accepted students with low SAT scores were underrepresented minority students from California's lowest-performing high schools.

"We're in the unfortunate position of not being able to admit some truly outstanding students, and that is difficult for us," Black said.

UC Berkeley officials said the largest group of rejected applicants with 1400-plus SAT scores were denied admission largely because of their lower grade-point averages. This group, university officials said, also took fewer semesters of honors and Advanced Placement courses, which allow students to gain college credit in high school if they pass certain exams.

Yet statistics provided by UC Berkeley officials on Friday showed that these rejected students actually had, on average, higher grade-point averages and more semesters of honors and AP courses than the students with SATs in the 600 to 1000 range who were accepted.

Students, parents and high school counselors often complain that the process of applying to the UC system, particularly Berkeley, is opaque, complex and confusing -- and the resulting decisions seemingly arbitrary.

The report, even in preliminary form, seems likely to fuel concerns by regents and others that a recently revamped "comprehensive review" admissions policy at the university would lower UC's academic standards.

The policy, in use systemwide for two years -- and at Berkeley, in various forms since 1998 -- allows admissions officials to weigh personal factors, not just grades and test scores, in reviewing each applicant, although academic considerations are still required to be paramount.

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