Barriers Students Faced Count
By DANIEL GOLDEN
IRVINE, Calif. -- Stanley Park felt as if the University of California, Los Angeles, had revamped its admissions criteria just for him. UCLA was looking for students who had overcome "life challenges," such as family illness, being raised by a single parent or being the first in the family to go to college.
After Mr. Park's parents, Korean immigrants of modest means, divorced three years ago, he lived with his mother. When she developed breast cancer, he began tutoring children to help pay the rent. Despite his work commitment, he scored an impressive 1500 out of 1600 on his SAT college-admissions exam.
UCLA and the state university's other elite campus, Berkeley, both rejected Mr. Park.
Blanca Martinez also grew up in a working-class immigrant family, and also helped support it when her mother had breast cancer. Her SAT score, though, was 390 points below Mr. Park's. Both Berkeley and UCLA admitted her.
The University of California has adopted a new admissions system, one that proponents say helps to equalize opportunity for all. Starting this spring, all applicants were weighed under a process known as comprehensive review, which awards extra credit for surmounting a wide range of personal, family or psychological obstacles -- what UCLA calls life challenges. But critics are wondering if the university cares more about life challenges for some students than for others, in violation of a 1996 state referendum that barred giving preferences to racial or ethnic groups.
One outspoken critic is David Benjamin, owner of an SAT-preparation business. "It is simply shameful that it is worth less to be poor and Asian than to be poor and Hispanic," he says. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm that defended the referendum, called Proposition 209, will seek to review admissions records for signs of bias.
Meanwhile, the new standard has led to a flood of sob stories on college-application essays, in some cases after university staffers have coached minority students on how to identify and present their hardships. And rejected students are filing appeals at a notably higher rate.
UCLA and Berkeley say they don't comment on why they accept or reject individual students. University of California officials say comprehensive review gives preference to educationally disadvantaged students, not to any particular minority, and can identify diamonds in the rough. The university figures students who've overcome adversity are likely to bring the same determination to their college studies. "You bring in students that can tackle the academic programs with enthusiasm, with strength and with purpose," says Carla Ferri, director of undergraduate admissions. "That's what we're looking for."
Former UCLA admissions director Rae Lee Siporin says the new system also was intended to make the student body as reflective as possible of the state's population. She says UCLA determined that simply using poverty as an index of disadvantage would reduce diversity, because it wouldn't help middle-class blacks and Hispanics and it would "pull in" lots of low-income Asians.
Latino legislative leader Marco Antonio Firebaugh, a force behind adoption of the new system, agrees: "We found that using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids," he says. The formulas UCLA and other campuses chose instead give hefty boosts to the students -- predominantly Hispanic and African-American -- who attend low-performing high schools targeted by university outreach programs.
Under the new criteria, Hispanics and blacks admitted to the University of California for next fall rose to 18.5% of the total, nudging past pre-Proposition 209 levels for the first time. UCLA admitted 9% more Latinos and 19% more blacks than last year, but slightly fewer Asian-Americans and 7% fewer non-Hispanic whites.
Nevertheless, the university's enrollment remains far from a mirror of California. Hispanics make up about a third of the state population but only an eighth of the University of California's nearly 150,000 undergraduates. Asians are 11% of the population but almost 40% of the undergraduates.
The university says it has borrowed the admissions strategy of elite private universities, which assess applicants as individuals, not just agglomerations of grades and scores. But those schools consider interviews and recommendations, and they generally discuss applicants' pros and cons rather than assign socioeconomic points. California's approach is just a "checklist," says Matt Malkan, a physics professor at UCLA and former chairman of its admissions panel. "It's a parody of what the Ivy Leagues do."
The University of California used to seek diversity through affirmative action, but the political and legal winds shifted. In 1995, the board of regents said academic merit alone must determine admission of half to three-quarters of freshmen, a rule since dropped. In 1996, the voter initiative barred preferences. Federal courts have also been grappling with the issues, with mixed outcomes: voiding race-based admissions in Texas and Georgia but giving support to them in Michigan and Washington state.
In recent years, state universities in Texas, Florida and California have also sought diversity by guaranteeing a place for all students who rank near the head of their high-school classes. That has ensured slots for top students at heavily minority schools while reducing the impact of standardized tests, on which black and Hispanic students often lag. At UCLA last fall, the average SAT score of Hispanics who got in was 1168. That was below the average score for Asians and non-Hispanic whites who didn't get in, 1174 and 1209 respectively. (Accepted whites scored an average 1355, and accepted Asians 1344.)
The University of California has also successfully pushed the College Board to eliminate a verbal-analogies SAT section criticized by some as culturally biased in favor of whites. Meanwhile, a few other state universities have begun measuring applicants with comprehensive reviews akin to California's.
Applicants to the University of California must meet its minimum academic standards. Among other yardsticks for eligibility, they must take SAT II exams that measure mastery of a field of study. Starting last year, the university doubled the weight given to SAT II scores. The switch was a boon to Latinos, because one SAT II test they can take measures knowledge of Spanish.
For admission to particular campuses, those who've passed the eligibility test face comprehensive review. The eight undergraduate campuses differ slightly in what educational disadvantages and personal challenges they give extra credit for. Among those UCLA counts are immigration hardships, living in a high-crime neighborhood, having been a victim of a shooting and having long-term psychological difficulties.
Not all beneficiaries of comprehensive review are Hispanic or black. In accepting 15 seniors from an elite private academy in San Diego, Francis Parker School, UCLA rejected several academic standouts while taking three white students who had lesser academic records but more-compelling woes, says a counselor at Parker. One had a father who was imprisoned, one had lived in his car after a falling-out with his parents, and a third missed a year of school with bone cancer. "A lot of my friends didn't get into UCLA who had better grades than me," says that student, Sean Robins.
At Mr. Park's University High in Irvine, where the student body is 50% non-Hispanic white and 41% Asian-American, UCLA acceptances plunged to 69 students this year from 89 last year, and Berkeley admissions fell to 47 from 63.
Principal Diana Schmelzer thinks she knows why: "Our students come from stable homes and their parents are teachers, doctors and lawyers. It feels as though the kid who works very hard and comes from an upper-middle-class family is in fact the disadvantaged student" under the new admissions criteria. She has in mind students such as Albert Shin, an engineer's son turned down by UCLA and Berkeley despite a 1540 SAT score.
Hyejin Jae, a classmate also spurned by Berkeley and UCLA, worries that she hurt her chances by soft-peddling family hardships. But "I didn't want too much of a pity party," says Ms. Jae, who scored 1410 on her SATs and is the daughter of a struggling Korean-immigrant pastor. "No matter how bad your situation is, somebody has it worse." She, Mr. Park and Mr. Shin will attend the university's San Diego campus.
At 99%-Hispanic South Gate High School near Los Angeles, Ms. Martinez's alma mater, the number of seniors accepted by the university's elite campuses has surged. Berkeley took 16 South Gate seniors this year, compared with six two years ago. UCLA took 36, compared with 14 in 2000. Although UCLA overall accepted fewer than one-fourth of its applicants, it took more than half of those from South Gate.
Most of these UCLA-bound students, like Ms. Martinez, are children of blue-collar immigrants from Mexico. Dania Medina, whose father is a machine operator and mother a cosmetologist, scored just 410 out of 800 on her verbal SAT, along with 640 in math. Ms. Medina, who wrote her admissions essay about having a sister with Down syndrome, expects to be placed in a low-level English course at UCLA. Classmate Susana Pena, daughter of a construction worker, will enter UCLA with a 940 SAT score, 380 points below the average for students admitted for this fall. "People should understand it's harder for us," she says. "Once in a while, they should give us a little break so we can catch up to them."
One reason these students, and not Mr. Park, Ms. Jae or Mr. Shin, made the cut may be that they took part in University of California outreach programs. Most campuses give extra credit toward admission for this. But the university offers such programs only at low-rated high schools, not high-ranked schools such as University High.
After Proposition 209 passed, the university more than quadrupled spending on outreach to $85 million. A university blueprint says the program is "open to all but, to the extent possible under the law, should emphasize increases in under-represented racial and ethnic minority participation in postsecondary education."
Robert Laird, a former Berkeley admissions director, says the University of California is under "tremendous pressure" from Hispanic legislators to show that the big investment in outreach is paying off in higher Latino enrollment.
Besides helping college-bound students pick courses, outreach workers coach them on how to write the essays that are part of their college applications. At a recent South Gate workshop, a UCLA outreach worker gave examples of life challenges that could help students gain admission, such as having to do homework in the bathroom for lack of any other quiet place to study.
"Stress particular circumstances that might have affected your education," an outreach memo advises -- "whether you come from a large family ... mention if you have lived most of your life in a ghetto, barrio or low-income area."
At another mainly Hispanic high school near Los Angeles, Belmont, UCLA student and outreach worker Alex Paredes helped Rosaura Novelo edit her application essay. "It has been difficult for my parents, Mexican immigrants who did not even get to third grade in school, to raise a family of seven," her essay began. "My father is the only person in the family who works, getting only minimum wage." UCLA admitted her despite an SAT score of 980. UCLA took 24 seniors from Belmont, triple last year's number.
The advice outreach workers give isn't guesswork: Some of them do double duty as evaluators of applicants to attend UCLA. They don't rule on particular candidates they have recruited.
Asked whether some students are exaggerating their hardship stories, the University of California says current verification practices are limited and it plans to start spot-checking.
UCLA rates applicants in three categories: academics, achievement outside school and life challenges. Officials say academics count most but there's no formula for combining the three.
UCLA applicants also get credit for attending high schools that fare poorly on standardized tests and offer few advanced-placement courses. Belmont and South Gate fit that category. If students attend such a school and take an outreach program, UCLA gives them seven of the eight points they need to qualify as "exceptionally challenged." Having a low family income, a single parent or parents who didn't go to college easily provides the last point.
Paradoxically, attending a low-performing high school can also help in the academic assessment. Several campuses measure applicants against others from the same high school, not against the whole universe of applicants.
At the Davis campus, a combination of outreach and attending a low-ranked high school counts for 1,000 points toward 7,000 needed for admission. That's equivalent to the difference between a 3.0 and 4.0 grade-point average. Signing up for an "educational opportunity program" adds 500 more points.
The Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento is expected to file public-records requests this month on behalf of two students rejected by the Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego campuses. It wants to determine whether they were casualties of race-based preferences.
One is David Rayhan, who has a strong record in his intended major, biology, with a 780 SAT II score and the maximum advanced-placement score, five. The San Diego campus rejected Mr. Rayhan, the son of an Iranian-immigrant dermatologist from upscale Huntington Beach. He appealed, saying he had overcome the handicap of speaking Farsi, not English, at home. San Diego, which declines to comment on his case, denied his appeal. It told him he had fallen 562 points short of the 7,224 needed.
Some applicants could have made up the point shortfall through a combination of an outreach program (up to 300 points), personal challenges (up to 500), low income (up to 300), first-generation college (up to 300) or attending a low-performing high school (up to 300). Mr. Rayhan, who plans to attend the University of California's less-selective Irvine campus, apparently qualified for few if any of those boosts. "Nothing horrible has happened to me," he sighs.
Write to Daniel Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated July 12, 2002
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