SAN FRANCISCO — A much-debated plan by the University of California to expand its freshman applicant pool and reduce the tests required for admission won final approval Thursday from the Board of Regents.
The new rules, among other changes, mean that applicants will no longer be required to submit scores from two SAT subject exams but as before, must take the main SAT or ACT test, as well as 15 UC-approved college prep courses in high school and keep a minimum 3.0 grade-point average. The policy shift will take effect for current high school freshmen who seek UC admission for fall 2012.
The changes are the latest in a series of controversial steps by UC over the last decade that backers say were needed to shift the university away from a purely mechanical admissions process that favored more affluent students from suburban schools with top-flight counseling, and whose families could afford test coaching. Many critics, however, have viewed the changes as a watering-down of standards and as attempts to get around the state ban on affirmative action in public university admissions.
Such a debate reflects tensions inherent in an elite public university. Since its founding in 1868, UC has been pulled between seeking to be very selective about its students but also trying to be egalitarian and wanting to reflect the state's population, historians say.
The regents passed the latest policy shift unanimously Thursday except for an abstention by Regent Judith L. Hopkinson, who previously complained that it would confuse students and possibly violate the state's master plan on higher education. That plan says UC should select students from the top 12.5% of students statewide, based on their grades and test scores.
UC officials said the admissions changes will not affect the number of spots available at the university's campuses and are not intended to increase the number of students who enroll, only those eligible to apply. Last month, because of reduced state funding, the regents approved a reduction of 2,300 students, or 6%, for this fall's freshman class. If such cuts remain in coming years, Thursday's action could have the effect of increasing the competition for each slot.
Supporters said the changes will make more students eligible for UC, particularly low-income, rural, black and Latino students who have good grades and test scores but have often been shut out by the subject test requirement. Some critics, however, say the new policy creates too much ambiguity and sends a bad message to students by dropping important tests.
In addition, some Asian American legislators and scholars expressed concern that preliminary projections show the policy may reduce the numbers of Asian American students admitted to UC.
UC President Mark G. Yudof on Thursday said that those projections might not be accurate and that he expected that Asian American students who might do well on subject tests will put their energies into the basic SAT or ACT exam.
"They'll be fine," he said.
Students are allowed to apply to as many of the nine UC undergraduate campuses as they like. Even if they are rejected by their preferred campuses, eligible applicants are guaranteed a spot at a campus with space, usually UC Riverside or UC Merced.
The plan is expected to reduce the guarantees by about 10,000 students a year, to about 35,475. It also would cut the percentage of students deemed eligible for the university statewide, based on a sliding scale of grades and test scores, from the top 12.5% to 9%. In addition, the plan would increase the number who qualify by class rank at their high schools, which is a separate path to UC; that figure would rise to the top 9% of their local graduating class, from 4% now.
The change also creates a category of 30,000 additional students who will have their applications reviewed but will not be guaranteed a spot at UC. They will need a 3.0 grade point average but in general can have lower grades and test scores than the other groups.
Many, but not all, of the admissions revisions over the last decade have added routes into UC or authorized more leeway.
In 1999, the regents created what is called "eligibility in local context," in which students can become eligible for the university by ranking very high in their own high school's graduating class and meeting other requirements. That was, in part, an effort to recruit bright students from high schools that traditionally sent few to UC campuses.
In 2001, UC endorsed a major shift that has allowed applicants' personal achievements and such factors as struggles against poverty to be considered alongside their grades and test scores. The policy's open-ended nature still rankles critics.
On the other hand, UC leaders have raised the bar at times. In trying to keep the applicant pool within the master plan guidelines, they boosted the minimum high school grade-point average allowed from 2.8 to 3.0, starting with freshmen admitted for 2007.
The regents also voted Thursday for the university and its employees to start making required contributions to UC's pension plan next year for the first time in 19 years. The stock market crash and increasing retirement demands threaten to push what is now a $41-billion fund to levels below its liabilities, officials warned.
The estimated 115,000 UC employees in the plan would not see their take-home pay reduced because the pension contributions would come from money now going to individual retirement savings accounts.