"There's No Valid Surrogate for
Diligent efforts to mitigate ban on "affirmative
action" admissions fail at UC Berkeley and UCLA
For months, dozens of application readers on both campuses scoured freshman applications–30,000
at Berkeley, 33,000 at UCLA–searching for students who had overcome personal or social
adversity or seemed to possess an extra spark of intellectual talent. They hoped
to find enough such students to compensate for the gap between the high school grades
and test scores of white and Asian American applicants and those from other racial
and ethnic backgrounds.
But in the end their efforts fell short. Many African American and Latino applicants
found themselves squeezed out by whites and Asian Americans, from both wealthier
and poorer backgrounds. For the first time in nearly two decades, both campuses suffered
a sharp decline in the proportion of African Americans and Latinos admitted.
The Berkeley and UCLA results could reflect the future for other popular, selective
public universities across the country, if racial or ethnic factors no longer can
be considered in deciding who will be admitted.
The results were disappointing, but not surprising, to University of California administrators.
"Educational opportunities they (Latinos and African Americans) receive generally
aren’t equal," Patrick S. Hayashi, Berkeley associate vice chancellor in charge
of admissions and enrollment, said in an interview. "The new approach takes
some of that into account, but their grades and test scores tend to be lower. There’s
no way to substitute for racial preference. Affirmative action was working at Berkeley
Thomas E. Lifka, assistant vice chancellor for student academic services at UCLA,
"There’s no valid surrogate for race," Lifka said. "We have looked
at disadvantaged high schools and flipped over every rock. Many problems have nothing
to do with schools. Rather, it’s parental stimulation and support. How do you intervene
for a kid in a one-parent family whose parent never graduated from high school?"
At UC Berkeley, the proportion of Latinos admitted to next year’s freshman class
dropped 49 percent from a year ago. Latinos therefore comprise only 7.6 percent of
those admitted, despite California’s rapidly growing Latino population.
The proportion of African Americans dropped 64 percent and will account for only
2.4 percent of those admitted. American Indians, the third chronically underrepresented
group in the University of California student population, have almost disappeared;
only 27 were admitted to Berkeley, a 59 percent drop from a year ago.
At UCLA, the number of Latinos admitted fell 33 percent, African Americans 42.6
percent and American Indians 43 percent. The overall grade-point average for those
admitted to UCLA rose slightly, from 4.14 to 4.19 (Advanced Placement classes and
other honors work can raise a GPA above 4.0), and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)
scores increased from 1302 to 1324. At Berkeley, average GPA increased from 4.14
to 4.27 and SAT scores rose from 1336 to 1390.
"We accelerated transition to this approach because it gave us maximum flexibility
under the law," Berkeley’s Hayashi said. "Had we not moved to this process,
the number of underrepresented students would have been far lower."
When the process began last January, Berkeley officials knew they would admit only
8,250 of the 30,000 applicants, aiming for a first-year class of 3,485. The gap between
those admitted and those who enroll reflects the fact that the campus competes with
prestigious public and private universities, nationwide, for many of California’s
Berkeley, like UCLA, divides admissions into two equal portions–half are accepted
primarily because of academic achievement (grades and SAT scores), the other half
because of a mix of academic and non-academic accomplishments and, in many cases,
for overcoming economic or social obstacles.
In the past, race and ethnicity could be considered, along with many other factors.
But when a group of 52 application readers–a mix of high school counselors and
full-time staff members that included 24 whites, 12 African Americans, eight Asian
Americans, seven Latinos and one American Indian–began to study the applications
for next fall, they knew that racial criteria had been ruled out. Instead, readers
zeroed in more than before on how much applicants extended themselves in choosing
courses and other activities, compared with their classmates.
They also were armed with detailed reports on the range of quality in the high schools,
helping them to judge whether applicants had to overcome poor teaching and counseling,
or whether they had benefited from inflated grades.
Compounding the dilemma, the new rules might destroy "critical masses"
of both groups that have built up over the years at UCLA. They provided a more comfortable
environment for new students with similar backgrounds. It is a loss that can’t be
regained very soon, Lifka said. "If you’re a 17-year-old and you say, ‘I’m going
to find a boyfriend or a girlfriend,’ it’s not required that every face be from your
group, but there’s need for that critical mass," he said.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl and UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale both
said their campuses will work hard to persuade those African American and Latino
students who were admitted to actually enroll next fall and not desert the UC system
or the state.
"Now the challenge before us is, despite this drop in admission in underrepresented
minorities, to get the highest possible enrollment we can so we can maintain the
diversity of this campus," Carnesale said at a press conference following release
of the figures.
In recent weeks, Chancellors Berdahl and Carnesale, along with Assembly Speaker Antonio
Villaraigosa and other prominent alumni, have been phoning and writing successful
applicants from underrepresented groups, urging them to enroll in the fall.
However, many of these students also have been accepted by prestigious private universities
that can offer generous scholarships. In the recent past, less than half of the "underrepresented"
who were admitted to Berkeley and UCLA actually showed up for classes, and many expect
that number to drop this year.
Berdahl said he reacted "with a mixture of disappointment, anger, frustration,
hope and resolve." The results were "worse than we had hoped," he
added. Many black and Latino students who were denied admission would have succeeded
at Berkeley, the chancellor added, citing steady improvement in minority graduation
Berdahl said "there’s no easy answer" for the problems created by eliminating
racial preference from the admissions procedure. He rejected suggestions that Berkeley
should lower its admissions standards by letting high schools choose the candidates
or by selecting students through a lottery.
"The SAT is not a major hurdle either for Latinos or African Americans,"
Keith Widaman, chairman of the UC faculty’s Board of Admissions and Relations with
Schools, testified at a recent state legislative hearing. He said a recent survey
of 19,000 UC students showed a close correlation between high school grades and SAT
scores. "Dropping the SAT would be like discarding a thermometer if you’re sick,"
said Widaman, a psychology professor at UC Riverside.
UC faculty leaders and administrators hope that time will help to solve the enrollment
disparities, but many concede that political heat generated by the latest admissions
numbers might not allow enough time.
A UC eligibility study shows that only 3.9 percent of Latino high school graduates
are admissible. "That means 96.1 percent don’t have a place in the UC system,
in a state which has the largest Latino population in the country," said Berkeley’s
Hayashi. "That’s a terrible statistic."
State Senator Teresa Hughes, whose Los Angeles-area district includes a substantial
number of African Americans, has proposed an amendment to the State Constitution
that would allow high schools, rather than UC campuses, to decide which students
are eligible for admission. The Hughes proposal goes somewhat beyond a new admissions
policy now in effect in Texas. (see sidebar)
Anticipating an outcry following the latest admissions results, UC’s leaders have
decided to consider admitting the top four percent graduating from each of the state’s
nearly 900 public high schools. At present, under terms of the state’s Master Plan
for Higher Education, UC is expected to choose its first-time freshmen from among
the top 12.5 percent of all the state’s high school graduates, not from individual
UC President Richard Atkinson proposed the four percent solution, which is supported
by the blue-ribbon California Citizens Commission on Higher Education. The idea is
being studied by Widaman’s faculty committee.
"Berkeley will not, in and of itself, turn around these enrollments,"
the chancellor conceded. "But it will provide us with partnerships and intervention
programs that will work to improve overall performance." Berdahl hopes these
efforts will call attention to the gaps in quality among public schools, including
funding, buildings, teachers, libraries and after-school programs.
Universities like Berkeley and UCLA usually cite three principal missions: teaching,
research and public service. But public service usually gets little more than lip
service, said a UC faculty leader who asked that his name be withheld. Now, "it’s
one of those put up or shut up situations. If the UC system is honest about a major
push (for more African and Latino enrollment), then there has to be substantial money,
substantial faculty and staff involvement."
At Berkeley, faculty members and administrators pin their hopes for regaining a more
diverse enrollment on the expanded search for a wider range of talent, ambition,
perseverance and character. They hope that application readers, with a year’s experience
under their belts, will be able to spot more such students.
Professor Franchot hopes students will be asked to write longer personal statements,
not the two pages that were crammed into this year’s application forms. She would
like to see an essay written in a classroom within a limited time. Pam Burnette,
training director in the undergraduate admissions office, said, "Maybe we should
ask them more specific questions about how their circumstances affect their academic
Bob Laird, the Berkeley undergraduate admissions director, who has tried to maintain
an even keel for his staff of 57 in turbulent and shifting political and legal times,
believes important progress has been made this year.
"We have a better understanding of grades and scores," he said. "We’ve
learned that not all 4.0s are the same, and that the level of achievement is nowhere
UCLA’s Thomas Lifka said he urges colleagues not to use "diversity" as
a synonym solely for Latinos and African Americans. Someday, he tells them, "affirmative
action" might describe 20 percent of those students who come from families that
can’t contribute more than $2,000 annually to meet a $14,000 bill for their son’s
or daughter’s year at the Los Angeles campus.
"I try to tell them that we’ll continue to have diversity," Lifka said.
He hesitated and then added, "But it’s hard to overlook the devastating impact."
Carl Irving is a former political and education writer for the San Francisco
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