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Numbers Aren't Everything

October 13, 2003

A recent regent's report on UC Berkeley raised questions -- and eyebrows -- over the elite campus' admissions policies. But what the report from UC Board of Regents Chairman John J. Moores didn't do was provide evidence of wrongdoing. Instead, Moores gave a partial glimpse of who gets accepted to Berkeley by examining only SAT scores and finding that 381 students with scores of 1,000 or less were admitted, while 3,214 applications with scores of at least 1,400 were rejected. Moores declared himself "shocked," saying, "I just don't see any objective standards."

He might have, had he commissioned a more thorough study. No one in the UC system ever said SATs were the primary factor in accepting students. According to a subsequent letter by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, the SAT is the least important of three sets of numbers considered. More emphasis is placed on grades, which reflect students' daily efforts, and the SAT II, which tests subject knowledge. SAT scores "are the least predictive of first-year success," Berdahl wrote.

Moores neglects other important data on the 381 students. All met the UC eligibility requirement of being within the top 12.5% of students statewide, based solely on the numbers. They represented about 3% of the freshmen accepted to Berkeley. Even if none had won entrance, that would have created spaces for only one in nine of the top SAT students who were rejected. Half the 381 students were in the top 4% of their graduating classes, which guarantees placement in the UC system.

And, perhaps most intriguing, more than a third of the 381 decided not to attend Berkeley. That says many had options, including other excellent schools -- which would mean there was a lot more to those students than their SAT scores.

The UC system is struggling with the competing problems of budget shortfalls and higher numbers of well-qualified students. Given the cutthroat competition, students, parents and taxpayers have a valid interest in knowing how the system works. A plan for a well-conducted study of admissions is a good idea. But such a study cannot take a strictly-by-the-numbers approach.

In June, Times reporter John Glionna profiled Berkeley commencement speaker Duane De Witt, 48, a reentry student who lacked the high-caliber background that people might expect of Berkeley candidates. In fact, the school had rejected him four times. But De Witt's lifelong ability to overcome extraordinary hurdles through even more remarkable persistence finally earned him a seat, though this impoverished scholar spent one semester sleeping by a creek. He graduated with nearly straight A's and a passion for helping the homeless. Some things are better than a 1400 on the SAT.

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