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How UC is rigging the admissions process

September 07, 2008|Heather Mac Donald | Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal.

Ever since California voters banned the use of racial preferences in government and education in 1996, the University of California has tried to engineer admissions systems that would replicate the effect of explicit racial quotas while appearing color-blind.

To some observers, the legality of those efforts has long been suspect, but proof of wrongdoing has been hard to come by. Now a professor who sat on UCLA's committee on undergraduate admissions is charging that the school is deliberately taking race into account when deciding which students to admit. The university has refused to give him access to the data to test his claim, prompting the professor -- political science faculty member Tim Groseclose -- to resign from the school's admissions oversight committee in protest.

UCLA's stonewalling is misguided and futile. Though the University of California has always jealously guarded information on its students' qualifications and its admissions procedures, enough details have come out over the last 10 years to suggest that race remains a factor in many parts of the system. More important, hard evidence is accumulating that enrolling students in a college for which they are academically unprepared does them a disservice.

The story begins with the passage of Proposition 209, the 1996 anti-quota ballot initiative, which reduced the number of African Americans admitted to campuses across the state and sent UC officials into crisis mode. They began implementing a series of admissions changes intended to bring underqualified blacks and Latinos back to the system's most demanding campuses.

They tried a preference scheme for low-income students, but it backfired when it boosted the number of Eastern European and Vietnamese admissions -- not the sort of "diversity" the university had in mind. Administrators cut the low-income preferences in half and went back to the drawing board.

The subsequent admissions gambits, which continue to be rolled out to this day, are intended to increase "diversity" without running afoul of the law. Whether they have succeeded in substituting other factors for race in a permissible manner, or whether they are illegally seeking to pervert the requirements of the law, will probably be decided, in the end, in court.

Berkeley's Boalt law school, for example, reduced the role of academic qualifications in ranking students; the resulting disparities between minorities and whites at the school were enormous. In 2002, Boalt admitted only 5% of white students in a low academic rank, but it admitted 75% of black applicants in the same range.

At UCLA, from 1998 to 2001, black applicants were 3.6 times as likely to be admitted to its undergraduate college as whites, and Latinos 1.8 times as likely, even after controlling for economic status and school ranking, according to an unpublished study by statistician Richard Berk.

The most powerful tool that the University of California has come up with to engineer such outcomes is something it calls "comprehensive review," which, as the president's office delicately put it in 2003, "broadens the conception of merit." Under comprehensive review, a student's academic qualifications are boosted or demoted according to various factors, including his or her life situation -- whether he or she lives in a high-crime neighborhood, has been a shooting victim, is a single parent or comes from a single-parent home, for example.

Even with such a relativist take on academic credentials, UCLA still faced a dearth of qualified black students. In 2005, under enormous political pressure to increase the low black enrollment at UCLA, acting Chancellor Norman Abrams all but demanded that the faculty adopt a more radical version of comprehensive review -- "holistic" review -- which deconstructs the idea of objective academic merit even further.

UCLA's associate vice provost for student diversity also directed the admissions committee to increase the number of blacks who read and rate student applications, resulting in a 25% black representation among readers, more than three times the ratio in California's population.

Abrams had assured the black community that UCLA would increase its black admissions rate, and sure enough, holistic review did just that. For 2006-07, the last year under the old system, UCLA admitted 250 black students; the next year, it admitted 407.

The average combined SAT score for black admits dropped 45 points to a level about 300 points lower than the average among white and Asian admissions, according to a report by Groseclose. Blacks' chances of admission rose from 11.5% to 16.5%, while that of Vietnamese students, who tend to come from poorer households, dropped from 28.6% to 21.4%.

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