When Governor Gray Davis appointed me to the Board of Regents of the University of California in 1999, I recognized the university's responsibility to extend the opportunity for academic achievement to as many capable students as the resources of the nation's premier public university allow. Sadly, today's UC admissions policies are victimizing students--not just those unfairly denied admission but also many with low college entrance exam scores who were admitted and can't compete.
Prompted by many complaints from parents whose high-scoring children were rejected by Berkeley, I started probing admissions records. I learned that 359 students with combined SAT scores of 1,000 or less were admitted to Berkeley in 2002, accounting for 3% of the 10,905 students admitted that year. (The national SAT average is about 1,000.) Of those 359 students, 231 were from underrepresented minorities--meaning blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. Only 19 of the low scorers were white. Some 1,421 Californians with SAT scores above 1,400 applying to the same departments at Berkeley were not admitted. Of those, 662 were Asian-American, while 62 were from the underrepresented minorities.
How did the university get away with discriminating so blatantly against Asians? Through an admissions policy with the vague term "comprehensive review." The policy includes factors like disabilities, low family income, first generation to attend college, need to work, disadvantaged social or educational environment, difficult personal and family situations. This means that a student from a poor background whose parents didn't go to college is given preference over a kid raised by middle-class, educated parents--all other things being equal.
Nobody believes that the SAT is a perfect predictor of academic success, but it's silly to pretend that very low scoring applicants should be admitted to one of America's premier universities with the expectation that somehow these students will learn material that they missed in K-12.
Needless to say, there is no hard weighting system at Berkeley for any of the fuzzy factors mentioned above. The result is an admissions system that is impossible to audit and that offers a cover for university administrators who don't want the media hounding them over declining minority enrollment.
The university is saying it is tilting the balance in favor of disadvantaged students as opposed to merely engaging in racial discrimination. Whatever the truth of that assertion, any good that comes from giving disadvantaged kids a leg up is undone if the tilting goes too far. It goes too far when kids who struggled with eighth-grade math have to compete with kids who aced advanced-placement calculus.
Another disappointment is the many "outreach" programs that were funded post-1996 to create more diversity at the university. As I see it, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on encouraging poor, often minority, high school students to apply to UC even if they have very low SAT scores. But the outreach programs have had perverse consequences. The victims are the kids who should have gone to one of California's outstanding community colleges, where they might have had the possibility of success and a chance to grow intellectually.
California's public higher education is the best in the world. UC should ensure that its policies are consistent with its well-deserved reputation. The university's admission process should be legal and fair, and the criteria for admission should be transparent to the public. Students should understand that the path into UC is pretty straightforward: Work hard, take demanding courses and demonstrate academic success.