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"There's No Valid Surrogate for Race"
Diligent efforts to mitigate ban on "affirmative action" admissions fail at UC Berkeley and UCLA

By Carl Irving

Jennifer Franchot
Jennifer Franchot, who teaches American Literature at UC Berkeley, served as liaison between the Berkeley faculty and people reading admissions applications.
FROM THE START, admissions officials at UC Berkeley and UCLA knew the task would be difficult–selecting a freshman class that reflected California’s great diversity while abiding by the UC Board of Regents mandate that there should be no "affirmative action" for African Americans and Latinos.

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 and UCLA."

Thomas E. Lifka, assistant vice chancellor for student academic services at UCLA, agreed.

"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.

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While racial preference has been ruled out as an admissions criterion in California and a few other states, in many others it still is an important consideration in deciding who is admitted to prestigious public campuses and who is not.
Among the unsuccessful Berkeley applicants, 7,200–enough to fill the freshman class twice–had GPAs of 4.0 or better. Of these, 500 were from underrepresented groups, mostly black and Latino, and their median SAT score was 1170.

Both campuses reported far greater decreases among those of Mexican American, or Chicano, backgrounds, compared with other applicants with Hispanic names. At Berkeley, for example, the percentage of Chicanos admitted was 56.3 percent less than a year ago. That compared with a 21 percent decrease among other Latinos.

The proportion of those who identified themselves as whites and Asian Americans rose only slightly at Berkeley–3.2 and 7.7 percent respectively–and self-designated whites actually dropped 5.1 percent at UCLA. But several admissions officers privately called these figures very misleading, since there were very large increases in the "decline to state" category–162 percent at Berkeley, 157 percent at UCLA.

Last year, almost two-thirds of freshmen who enrolled at Berkeley, but had declined to give their race or ethnicity on the application forms, were white and the rest were Asian Americans, according to a survey by Gregg Thornton, director of student research.

Thornton interviewed three-quarters of these students and almost all said they had feared they would harm their chances if they were identified as white or Asian. Many also thought their chances would be even slimmer if their white or Asian American backgrounds were linked with data elsewhere on the applications revealing that their parents were well educated and/or affluent.

On the eight UC general campuses, unduplicated freshman applications showed a 14 percent drop for both African Americans and American Indians, according to university officials. Latinos declined by eight percent.

In addition to Berkeley and UCLA, the campuses at Davis, Irvine and San Diego also experienced sharp declines. At UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz, African American and Latino admissions increased over last year. UC Santa Barbara did not make its numbers public.

The declines in the number of African Americans and Latinos admitted to Berkeley were especially discouraging for campus officials because their applications had increased from the year before–by 7.4 and nine percent respectively–despite publicity about ending racial preferences.

The UC regents, prodded by Governor Pete Wilson, voted in July 1995 to impose a ban on admissions formulas–"affirmative action" that took into account race, ethnicity and gender. The policy took effect this year. Gender was never a factor but the formulas were used to boost enrollments of the "underrepresented"–minorities with enrollment figures that trail their percentages of the state population.

Readers studying freshman applications
Readers study some of the 30,000 freshman applications UC Berkeley received this year. Of these, 8,250 were admitted.
Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action state initiative approved by 54.3 percent of California’s voters in November, 1996, strengthened the ban.

To make up for these actions, Berkeley officials adopted a far more detailed admissions process, rewarding extra effort in and out of the classroom and taking into greater account poverty and social barriers (but without regard to race or ethnicity).

"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 outstanding students.

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.

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Far more intensively than before, the readers examined students’ economic and social backgrounds, giving special attention to those who had overcome big bumps in their lives. Shallower and more mechanical reviews of the past were replaced by "tough sensitivity," according to Jennifer Franchot, associate professor of English at UC Berkeley and head of the faculty advisory committee on admissions.

Franchot took a leave from teaching American Literature this spring to help read the applications and explain what the faculty wanted. Academically, that meant allotting extra credit and attention for high school honors work and for Advanced Placement courses and other college-level work.

The Berkeley faculty also wanted readers to take note of "extraordinary, sustained achievement in any field of intellectual endeavor." SAT scores became less important as readers analyzed closely how students fared in competition with classmates.

The faculty also directed readers to look at "personal characteristics and achievements," to include arts, sports, jobs, leadership qualities, character, motivation, tenacity and initiative. "Overcoming obstacles" quickly became a cliché for the readers but in some cases that description seemed too mild.

"We see a huge range of personal backgrounds–orphans, second-generation victims of drive-by shootings, some living in cars, refugees from around the world," said Nina Robinson, Hayashi’s manager of policy, planning and analysis. "It means more to us now–kids who achieve in spite of obstacles."

The readers also were instructed to look for "middle class" achievements such as Eagle Scout projects, community work, playing first violin in the school orchestra or being elected president of a student group.

Special attention was paid to the two-page personal statement that each applicant must file. "In the past, that statement was important only for some," said Bob Laird, undergraduate admissions director. "Now it’s important for all."

Mary Dubitzky, Laird’s assistant director, said the readers "examine the level of curiosity, leadership, persistence, creativity, service to others, overcoming hard-ships."

Readers claim they can spot essays written by parents or advisers. "We have good radar," Dubitzky said. "A student who writes well can be more convincing. We look for ‘tone’ and ‘voice’ to spot tutoring."

After undergoing intensive training, the readers began last January 12 to scrutinize applications at a rate of 1,400 per day. By March 6 at least two readers had studied and scored each application.

Successful applications were placed in two piles–those who were admitted principally because of high grades and test scores and those whose academic qualifications were combined with other factors. As in years past, more were placed in the first pile than the second.

Several hundred applications in each of the two categories were too close to call–grades and test scores were too close to be ranked separately. These were reviewed by a team of eight managers and "lead readers." By March 27 the process had been completed and letters containing good news or bad were mailed to all applicants by April 1.

Most of the readers knew that, despite their diligent efforts to find and credit students for overcoming obstacles, the net result would fail to maintain even current proportions of African Americans and Latinos, the two most underrepresented groups. And they were right.

Neither Hayashi nor Laird was surprised by the outcome. Nor were their counterparts at UCLA, which preceded Berkeley by switching to a broader review of applicants several years ago.

Eliminating racial factors in admissions poses special problems for UCLA, located in a city with a very large Mexican American population and a school district with one of the lowest college-going rates in the state.

The Los Angeles campus has long been noted nationally as a leader in admitting and graduating minority students. Five campus buildings are named after prominent African Americans, including Ralph Bunche, who served as deputy secretary general of the United Nations, and former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

Over the last two decades, UCLA admissions officials have seen a direct correlation between wealth and high test scores and grades, factors that tend to favor whites and Asians over Latinos and African Americans.

At the same time, far more white and Asian students from poor backgrounds have compiled more impressive academic and achievement records than have poor blacks and Latinos, according to UCLA Assistant Vice Chancellor Thomas Lifka and his deputy, Rae Lee Siporin, director of undergraduate admissions and relations with schools.

“There’s no way to substitute for racial preference,” says Patrick S. Hayashi, UC Berkeley vice chancellor in charge of admissions. “Affirmative action was working at Berkeley and UCLA.”
That leaves the two underrepresented groups in an admissions squeeze, because there’s no more affirmative action to help them. Lifka and Siporin despair for the future.

"We’ve been working for 20 years with Latinos and blacks in the tenth to 12th grades, many now second-generation college bound," Siporin said. "These students won’t qualify now because blacks, in particular, have not closed the gap."

"It’s a group that won’t grow," Lifka said.

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 rates.

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.

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Three students who were admitted to UC Berkeley, and one who was not
"Our faculty won’t tolerate that," Berdahl said. "It would mean lower graduation rates and a very ineffective distribution of our education dollars. Students ought to be entering a system where they can succeed." Yet the chancellor readily concedes that "legislators who feel as though their constituents don’t have access to this campus might be less inclined to support it."

Latino membership in the Democratic majority of the lower house in Sacramento has increased from five to 13 in the last five years. That reflects California’s rapidly growing Latino population, which increased from 26 to 30 percent between 1990 and 1996.

Earlier this year, Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles Democrat, was elected speaker of the state Assembly, the second Latino in a row to hold that post. By 2005, Latinos are expected to outnumber whites among California public high school graduates.

A Latino faculty task force headed by Eugene E. Garcia, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley, has recommended that UC drop the SAT as an admission requirement because they contend it is biased against applicants from poor backgrounds, especially those for whom English is a second language. Garcia argues that the SAT represents a hostile approach to admissions.

"The high family aspirations have been washed away by the cold-water reality of bad schools, cultural and social class discrimination and a great, but unwelcoming, university," the task force said in a recent report.

However, leaders of the UC faculty, which must approve changes in admissions requirements, generally support using the SAT.

"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 schools.

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.

UCLA admissions officials
UCLA admissions officials Rae Lee Siporin and Thomas Lifka, with a racially-mixed group of students, on the Los Angeles campus.
Widaman said he might support something like the four percent idea, if such students meet the university’s entrance requirements, because it could motivate lagging high schools. "We draw mostly from about two-thirds of the state’s high schools, and few or none from the rest," he said. "We’d thus be making eligible four percent from each of these schools, where most of these probably have grades above our (GPA) cut-off point of 3.3."

UC President Atkinson wants to organize an ambitious $60 million effort for more extensive K—12 tutoring, counseling and research. The aim is to raise educational levels of schools in racial barrios and ghettos, such as those in and around Los Angeles and Oakland, and in isolated rural areas as well, so more graduates of those high schools will be competitive for UC slots.

Privately, experienced UC admissions officials are skeptical about this latest crusade. They say similar "outreach" efforts in the past, headed by hastily hired and poorly prepared staff, faded away because they did not make a significant difference. Outreach programs tend to be expensive and almost invariably reach only a small number of students fortunate enough to have motivated parents and teachers, they contend.

"I’m not much of a believer in outreach," UCLA’s Lifka said. "UC’s been in the outreach business for 20 years. And what has happened to eligibility? It has a positive impact and it’s the ethical thing to do. But will it make up for (Proposition) 209? No."

At Berkeley, about one-third of the African American and Latino freshmen got there because of outreach efforts. Chancellor Berdahl has assigned 400 student tutors to work in 50 Bay Area schools. Efforts with small numbers showed marked improvement in test scores.

"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 achievement."

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 the same."

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 Examiner

Photos by Rod Searcy and Axel Koester for CrossTalk

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