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Access Denied
Low-income students are hit hardest by the latest round of tuition hikes and budget cuts

By David L. Kirp


 
   
It was page-one news last fall when a "confidential" report on Berkeley admissions, prepared for UC Regent (and San Diego Padres owner) John Moores, showed that in 2002 the university admitted nearly 400 students with combined SAT scores below 1000 while turning away 600 applicants with scores above 1500. Just a few months earlier in the University of Michigan cases, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the use of race to promote diversity in college admissions, and the rancor generated by that decision carried over into this new contretemps.

Admissions judgments don't, and shouldn't, rest on the results of a three-hour test, Berkeley officials argued; the process of "comprehensive review" properly takes into account high school academics, life experiences and the like. However, when an analysis of 2001 admissions data showed that minorities with low SAT scores were nearly twice as likely as whites to be admitted, Moores and fellow regent Ward Connerly went after Berkeley (and UCLA, where the figures were similar) for doing an end-run around Proposition 209, the California measure authored by Connerly that bans affirmative action.

This controversy took on the appearance of a food fight when Robert Berdahl, Berkeley's departing chancellor, sent Moores a blistering response. "You have done a disservice to the university and shown contempt for the reasoned discourse about complex issues," wrote the normally mild-mannered administrator, a riposte that Connerly called "impertinent." Berdahl "should be grateful he works for a university," Connerly added, "where he is protected by academic freedom."

The University of California has led the way nationwide in demonstrating that, compared with high school grades and scores on subject matter-oriented tests (the "SAT 2s"), SAT 1 "aptitude" tests do a bad job of predicting academic success, while favoring students whose parents can afford to send them to cramming schools.

In scolding the university for having abandoned the "goal of academic excellence," Moores trivialized a serious issue; at the November regents meeting, the most conflict-laced in years, several regents criticized him for releasing an analysis that was "incomplete, inaccurate, and hurt students." Even Connerly joined the chorus, calling the study's potential impact on students "unfair, unfortunate, and the worst thing we could do."

The performance of those 400 low-SAT-scoring students is a case in point-academically they are all making the grade at Berkeley. So, tellingly, are the students who transfer from community colleges. Seemingly everyone admires the transfer program, including those who decry affirmative action or "comprehensive review." After all, the policy of admitting students who have done well in community college to an elite university embodies iconic American values-that judgments should be based on the content of a man's character (to borrow the felicitous phrasing of Martin Luther King Jr.) and not the color of his skin, that hard work pays off, that there are second chances in American lives, that public universities serve as engines of mobility. The fact that, at Berkeley, these transfer students have similar majors and about the same graduation rates as students who come to the campus as freshmen is taken as confirming the wisdom of the policy.

Yet if those who equate meritocracy with high SAT scores were to inquire more closely into the transfers' high school records, they might have cause to rethink their position on diversity generally. Compared with those admitted to Berkeley as freshmen, slightly more of these students are minorities; the bigger difference is that their median family income is about 30 percent lower. Their SAT scores aren't even recorded, and for good reason: Most of them never bothered to take that exam, since anyone with a high school diploma can enroll in a community college. Moreover, based on how well many of them did in high school, an SAT score of 1000 would have seemed like an impossible dream.

None of this would surprise an experienced professor, who knows at first hand that when it comes to academic success the "hungry-to-learn" factor matters more than Kaplan-sculpted SAT scores. The true present danger for higher education in California has nothing to do with the 600 students with sterling SAT scores who didn't get those spots at Berkeley but almost certainly wound up at estimable universities. Nor more generally does it have anything to do with affirmative action. Rather, it concerns the thousands of students-disproportionately minority and even more disproportionately poor-who are effectively being denied access to college by budget cuts and steep tuition increases. And in this regard, as California goes, so goes the country.

When California's Master Plan for Higher Education was unveiled in 1960, it instantly became the international gold standard for expanding access to a college education. That plan promises every high school graduate a good and affordable education. The top 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates are guaranteed a place in the University of California system, and the top third are assured a spot in one of the state universities, such as San Francisco State University or Sacramento State University. All high school graduates can enter a community college, and if they succeed there, they're entitled to transfer to a UC institution.

Here's the tragedy: The Master Plan hasn't officially been repealed, but its guarantee of universal higher education is history. Tuition at the University of California has been kept comparatively low ($5,437 a year as compared with $6,149 at the University of Virginia and nearly $8,000 at the University of Michigan), but that's quickly changing. This year the cost of attending the University of California was raised a jaw-dropping 30 percent, an increase second in magnitude only to the University of Arizona.

The picture is even grimmer at the community colleges. As increases in enrollment have outstripped state funding, many campuses have been forced to cut courses and put a cap on enrollment. To balance the books, the community colleges raised their fees this year by more than a third, from $11 to $18 a unit. That's only about $100 a term, but community college students are especially sensitive to tuition increases. Many come from poor families that haven't sent their offspring to college and don't take the benefits of higher education for granted-the higher the cost, the less they're willing to risk a job now for uncertain prospects later.

At Berkeley, the percent of transfer students who say that financing their education is the toughest challenge they face nearly doubled, to 86 percent, between 1997 and 2002 (the year before the 30 percent tuition hike). And while Berkeley freshmen are becoming increasingly cost-conscious, there's still a noticeable gap in the proportion of the two groups who report that money is their major concern.

Across the state, community college officials estimate that fall 2003 enrollment was more than 100,000 less than they had been expecting; and because of the loss of state revenue, they had to turn away 50,000 students. What's most characteristic about these students isn't their race or ethnicity but the fact that, whether they're white, black, Asian or Hispanic, they often come from poor and working class families.

The same pattern is replicated nationally. A study by the Century Foundation estimates that if the nation's 146 most selective colleges, which enroll about ten percent of undergraduates, abandoned affirmative action, about 5,000 black and Latino students would have to enroll elsewhere. Using a broader definition of selectivity that includes the 379 colleges and universities classified by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education as Research I, Doctoral I or Baccalaureate College-Liberal Arts Colleges, affirmative action affects just .05 percent of all college slots-even making the unrealistic assumption that every minority student benefits from the policy.

This is an important half a percent, to be sure, since many of the nation's future leaders will come from this group. But while the fate of the new minority elite grabs the attention of Right and Left alike, across the country hundreds of thousands of students, a majority of whom are white, are being locked out of higher education. What William Julius Wilson described a quarter of a century ago in The Declining Significance of Race is truer now than it was then, and as true for higher education as for any segment of the society-the size of one's bank account, not the color of one's skin, has the biggest impact on an individual's life chances.

In California, the transfer students who have been held up as an example of the promise of higher education are among the chief casualties of higher tuition and declining state support. The Master Plan's promise of mobility-do well in community college and you can enroll in a university like UCLA or Berkeley-has fallen victim to the state's fiscal woes. To keep pace with the growing number of transfer applicants, the state agreed to underwrite four percent annual growth for the university, but during the budget negotiations in spring 2003, the lawmakers broke that agreement.

The impact has been as dispiriting as it is predictable. The University of California closed off enrollment for the spring 2004 semester, and more than 2,000 transfer applications were returned unread. The California State University system, facing the same pressures, has turned away as many as 30,000 students. The picture for next fall looks grimmer.

During last fall's recall election, California's politics made perfect fodder for the late night TV talk show hosts. When it comes to higher education, though, the state's dismal story is being repeated across the country. If John Moores and others who are stuck in the affirmative action quagmire want a real cause, they should take up the cudgels for these educationally disenfranchised students.


David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of the recently published Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Harvard University Press, 2003). Research assistance for this article was provided by Bryan Quevedo.

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