SAN FRANCISCO — University of California regents Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a controversial change in freshman admission standards that would drop the requirement for two SAT subject exams and make more students eligible for a review of their applications while guaranteeing entry to fewer.
The change is considered among the most sweeping admissions policy shifts by the university in years. With approval expected by the full Board of Regents today, it would take effect for current high school freshmen who seek admission to the university system for fall 2012. They would still need to take the main SAT or ACT entrance tests.
Backers of the proposal, including UC President Mark G. Yudof, contended that the overhaul would ensure that talented students are not shut out of UC campuses because they missed taking the subject tests or their high schools did not offer enough college prep classes.
"I believe it increases both fairness in our system and opportunity for our students, and it does so while maintaining the very high standards that are the bedrock of our institution," Yudof said at a regents meeting in San Francisco. He conceded that admissions decisions may become slightly less predictable.
However, some critics within UC and the state Legislature see the proposal as an unwarranted departure from California's master plan for higher education and as an attempt to circumvent Proposition 209, which bars the state's public colleges from considering race in admissions. The Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus urged regents to delay the vote to allow further study about the effects of the new rules on ethnic groups.
Some regents said the proposal, which evolved over two years, remained too complicated.
The regents' Committee on Educational Policy voted unanimously for the change. The full board is likely to follow suit; the panel rarely rejects a committee action.
The nine undergraduate UC campuses make their own admissions choices. If students are rejected by the campuses they prefer but are deemed eligible for the UC system, they are guaranteed a spot at campuses with room, usually UC Riverside and UC Merced.
Students now generally become eligible for UC schools one of two ways. They must complete 15 required college prep classes and, on a sliding scale, earn a combination of grades and SAT or ACT scores that puts them in the top 12.5% of high school graduates statewide. Or their grades must place them in the top 4% of their high school class. (For both, a 3.0, or B, grade-point average is the minimum, with boosts for honors classes.)
The proposed change would reduce the statewide guarantee to the top 9% of high school graduates and increase the local high school proportion to 9%. Because those groups overlap significantly, officials estimate that about 10% of all high school graduates would be guaranteed a spot somewhere in UC, down from 13.4%.
In its most controversial aspect, the plan would add a new category of eligible students: those with slightly weaker grades and course completions but whose resumes and essays would be reviewed, although they would not be guaranteed entrance. To be looked at, they would need to have a 3.0 grade-point average and show they are on track by having completed at least 11 of the 15 required courses by junior year and all 15 by graduation.
In all, the changes are expected to reduce the guarantees by about 10,000 students a year, to about 35,475, and boost the number eligible for review by about 30,000, to 76,141 a year, officials estimated.
Regent Judith L. Hopkinson said she did not object to dropping the subject exams but had "very, very significant reservations" about other aspects of the plan. She complained they made it "almost impossible to figure out how many will become eligible."
Under the proposal, the main SAT or ACT test with a writing section would still be required, but UC applicants would no longer have to take two supplemental subject exams in areas such as history or math. Critics of the subject exams say they add little to applications and that 22,000 students with otherwise good grades and SAT scores were ineligible for UC schools in 2007 because they failed to take the subject exams.
Mark Rashid, a UC Davis engineering professor who helped write the proposal, criticized the current admissions policy for requiring too many tests. It "places heavier emphasis on jumping through hoops than on academic achievement," he said.
But John Ellis, an emeritus professor of German at UC Santa Cruz who is president of the conservative California Assn. of Scholars, called the subject tests the best predictors of academic success and said dropping them would be a mistake. He also said he believed that many of the plan's supporters hoped to skirt Proposition 209 for "greater freedom to admit larger numbers of minority students."
Yudof, in comments after the vote, denied that the plan violated the affirmative action ban and said it was too soon to predict its effect on ethnic groups. He said that he expected more low-income students to become eligible and that if more African American and Latino students were among them, "that's not the reason we did it."
The state legislative analyst's office called the proposal "a radical departure" from the master plan, which calls for UC to draw from the top 12.5% of high school seniors statewide, based on academics.
In another matter, the regents' committee approved Yudof's proposal to ensure that financial aid covers basic education fees for all undergraduates with family incomes below the state median of $60,000 a year.