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Keep the UC bar high

Admissions standards could stand a bit of modification, just not at the expense of academics.

September 02, 2008

The University of California is rightly concerned about bringing more diversity to its undergraduate population. Its latest proposal to accomplish this contains some admirable aspects -- and others that should give Californians pause.

Under the state's higher education plan, UC accepts the top 12.5% of the state's high school graduates. Traditionally, this has been based on a sliding scale of grades and scores on the SAT, an objective method of determining eligibility. It was modified after UC dropped affirmative action 12 years ago so that students who rank in the top 4% of their schools' graduating classes also would be eligible -- a fair-minded recognition that some schools, primarily in rural and inner-city areas, lack the advanced classes and qualified teachers to bring even exceptional students into that top tier.

But the latest plan, which has been approved by faculty and is before UC President Mark G. Yudof, redefines "top students" in far-reaching, and not always helpful, ways.

Among its stronger provisions, the new plan would drop the SAT II as a required test. This is a subject-specific exam, such as U.S. history, taken in addition to the SAT. Failure to take the SAT II, often because of inadequate high school counseling, is a major reason that otherwise exemplary students don't make it into UC. Another change, from accepting the top 4% of each school's graduating class to accepting the top 9%, would have minimal impact because almost all of those students already would qualify as among the best statewide.

But the plan also would transform the way that a large number of freshmen are admitted. Under "comprehensive review," students with grade-point averages as low as C-plus could petition for admission based on other qualities, such as having overcome extraordinary obstacles.

There should be a place for flexibility in the admissions process, and for crediting nontraditional achievement. But a switch to admitting a fifth of freshmen through subjective review runs a risk of lowering standards, eroding public support for UC and shortchanging students who have put their all into meeting the university's academic rigor. It also sends an inadvertent message that students can slack off a bit in high school and talk their way into UC with a good story. Students who fall short of UC requirements can still prove their worth to the university by excelling at a Cal State campus or community college first, then transferring. Yudof should insist on tightening this provision before it is considered by the UC regents.

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