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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Demystifying Admissions
by Jennifer Reese

 
     

ILLUSTRATION: IMAGES.COM/JAMES YANG

From the Bakke decision in 1978 to Ward Connerly's campaign for Proposition 209 in 1996, admissions has been the hot-button issue in California education. Last October, John Moores, chair of the UC Board of Regents and a major donor at UCSD, fired the latest salvo in the ongoing cultural war, when he criticized the “comprehensive review” process, particularly its implementation at Berkeley. UC president Robert Dynes responded by asking the UC Task Force on Eligibility and Admissions to produce a study of the admissions process. The results published on March 8, 2004, showed that in 2003, Blacks and Chicano/Latinos were admitted at a higher rate than predicted by a statistical model, while Asian Americans and Whites were admitted at slightly lower rates. This prompted Dynes to release a statement saying “I remain concerned about a few presently unexplained differences in admit rates of similar students by race/ethnicity.”

On March 12, Moores wrote an opinion piece in Forbes magazine accusing Berkeley of using a “fuzzy” admissions policy. “How did the University get away with discriminating so blatantly against Asians?” he wrote. “Through an admissions policy with the vague term comprehensive review.” On March 18, the Board of Regents voted 8-6 to pass a resolution censoring Moores for the Forbes piece and reaffirming comprehensive review.

While the arguments continue, we have set out to explain how the implementation of comprehensive review works at UCSD, and also to demystify the admissions process.

On paper, the two applicants look almost identical—and they look like the kind of kids that any college would be thrilled to admit. They are both outstanding students with 4.0 grade point averages, and they both took rigorous course loads at competitive suburban high schools. Student B scored an impressive 1360 on the SAT I—well above the 1288 average for matriculating University of California, San Diego freshmen in 2003. Student A scored 1320. There's no question that both of these students would thrive in the classroom at UCSD.

But in mid-March, Student B was among the 16,000 applicants who received an acceptance letter from the University, while Student A was denied a place. The reason: a thorough review of both applications revealed that Student B spent three hours a week volunteering at an animal shelter. These were both real cases, but that tiny bit of extra oomph in Student B's dossier made all the difference. A talent for the violin, a learning disability overcome, or a low-income family would have had the same effect.

ILLUSTRATION: IMAGES.COM/JAMES YANG

The catch phrase in action here is “comprehensive review,” a controversial three-year-old admissions directive for the University of California's seven selective undergraduate campuses. It was designed to expand the University's definition of merit beyond academics, which might also result in the provision of better access to UC for economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students. Test scores and grades are crucial to identifying bright students who can handle the work at an elite school. But when you have the luxury of choosing from among a group of qualified applicants, you pick those who will bring leadership, rich and varied life experiences, creativity and diversity to the college community. Or so say proponents of comprehensive review. “Straight-A students are not always the most perfect candidates,” says Nancy Nieto, a guidance counselor at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, one of 80 outside readers, typically high school guidance counselors from a range of private and public schools, who vet applications for UCSD. “The students who do nothing but study often get lost when they go to college. But students who are involved in different organizations in high school will end up being contributing members of the college as well. If you limit it to grades, you're missing a whole lot.”

Opponents, however, see an underlying political agenda: to circumvent the 1996 state law banning affirmative action. They argue that socioeconomic background and personal hardships, now integral aspects of the admissions process, are little more than ways to boost minority enrollment. As conservative columnist Linda Chavez put it in the Chicago Sun-Times: “The idea is that Black and Hispanic applicants will be more likely to have overcome poverty, discrimination, family breakdown, crime-infested neighborhoods, overcrowding, and a host of other barriers to academic success. If the University gives them extra points for having beaten the odds, it will help make up for lower average grades and test scores among Black and Hispanic students.”

The most vociferous and influential critic of comprehensive review has been John Moores, owner of the San Diego Padres and chair of the UC Board of Regents, who has joked that the system should be called “compassionate review.” A 159-page report issued last fall (which Moores paid for out of his own pocket) raised serious questions about comprehensive review, particularly as it has been practiced at Berkeley. Moores pointed out that more than 3,200 students with SAT scores above 1400 were denied admission to Berkeley in 2002, while 374 applicants with SAT scores below 1000 were admitted. This kind of inequity, Moores says, has had a deleterious effect on the academic prestige of UC, and sets the low-scoring students up to fail. “In an effort to achieve some socioeconomic and geographic diversity in admissions,” he wrote, “it may well be that the UC admissions system has evolved into a complex and unwieldy process, which is now poorly understood by applicants and UC administrators.”

Of course, private universities from Pomona to Princeton have always hand-picked their students based on a wide range of academic and nonacademic criteria, with no damage to their prestige. But selectors at private universities don't need to justify to taxpayers why—and how—they chose the juggler from the inner city with the SAT score of 1200 over the suburban math whiz with a perfect 1600. Public schools, like UC, have an obligation to do just that. The system that has emerged is intricate, complicated and rigorous. Each UC approaches the admissions process in a slightly different manner, and in the case of UCSD, the process is almost completely transparent.

In 1960, the California state legislature endorsed the Master Plan for Higher Education, which stipulated that the University of California would henceforth be operated as

an elite institution reserved for the top 12.5 percent of California high school students; the California State universities would be open to the top third of graduating seniors; and the community colleges would be available to all. Today, only students who fall in the highest-performing group—measured by grades and test scores—are eligible for admission to a UC campus. Before they will even be considered, applicants to schools like UCSD have already distinguished themselves academically: They are all “smart.”

ILLUSTRATION: IMAGES.COM/JAMES YANG

The question, then, is this: How do you select a freshman class from among the eligible thousands? For many years, all the UC schools were able to accommodate every eligible student who wanted to enroll except Berkeley and UCLA (who had to “select” from an overabundance of qualified students). Last year, every UC campus except Riverside (which is expected to become selective next year) had more applicants than openings—often many more. UCSD, which became selective in 1986, had 43,438 applicants for a class of 3,799 in 2003. To fill that class, they accepted 16,000 students—just under 40 percent of those who applied. (The fact that each student makes multiple applications means that three-quarters of them will finally pick one of their other selections).

Until 2001, UCSD selected roughly half of its freshman class based on academics alone. Applicants were ranked on the basis of grades and test scores, then the admissions office scrolled down the list until it had filled half of the total slots. To fill the rest of the spaces, they factored in additional criteria, including leadership, special talents and, until 1995, race and ethnicity. In fact, UCSD has used comprehensive review for many years—but only to consider a portion of its applications.

Then, in 2001, UC president Richard Atkinson proposed that the system's selective campuses begin reading all of the applications they received. The Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), a systemwide committee of the UC academic senate charged with making policy recommendations on admissions, wrote up a list of 14 guidelines laying out exactly what criteria schools must take into consideration—though not how much weight to give them. It was left up to the faculty of the individual campuses to decide how to implement the new rules.

At Berkeley—historically the most selective UC—every file is now assigned a single score between one (“emphatically recommend admission”) to 5 (“recommend deny.”) The weight given to the various factors listed in the BOARS guidelines “floats,” which means that one extraordinary attribute or gift can conceivably compensate for a shortfall in other areas. UCLA, on the other hand, does three separate evaluations of a student—one focuses on the student's academic record, the second is an assessment of personal achievement, encompassing extracurricular activities, and the third measures “life challenges”—like growing up on an isolated farm, or overcoming a disadvantage. UCLA then balances the three evaluations so that a student with low academic scores, for instance, will have to have exceedingly high ratings in the area of life challenges and personal achievement to be considered for admission.

The system at UCSD is both more rigid and more transparent. (And given the school's historic strength in science and engineering, it's not surprising that they came up with a quantitative approach.) Based on a strictly standardized scrutiny of the applications, every student is appointed a score between 0 and 11,100, and that score determines whether they get in. To arrive at the score, UCSD admissions officers work down a tightly-controlled and straightforward checklist.

Here's how it works: In November, when the admissions office at UCSD begins to receive applications, data on the students' grades, test scores, high school ranking, and honors courses are fed into a computer that generates a so-called “academic index.” This is a hard number quantifying a student's academic achievement. Student A, in the real-life example that opened this story, had an academic index of 7,060; Student B's was 7,220. With 8,200 out of 11,100 possible points reserved for academics, the system is heavily weighted toward grades and tests. Last year, it was entirely possible for a stellar student to get into UCSD on academics alone. Our two applicants came close.

However, neither of them received any points at all for so-called “socioeconomic factors,” which attempt to account for a student's background. A set number of points is given to applicants from low-income families (from 0 to 300) or graduating from disadvantaged high schools (0 to 300). A student may also receive points (again, 0 to 300) for being the first member of her family to attend college. “Where so much is based on academics upfront, this is how we put the achievement in context,” says BOARS chairman Barbara Sawrey, a professor in UCSD's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “But we don't even look at context without the academic strength to begin with.”

There are six additional categories that UCSD studies under the rubric of “personal characteristics and extracurricular achievements.” To make these evaluations, the admissions office, in addition to its own staff, brings in those 80 outside readers, who are trained to quickly scan applications for specific criteria. The readers are looking for evidence of unusual talents, awards and experiences that may generate additional points—up to 1,700 total. A track record of demonstrated leadership is worth up to 300 points. There's not much flexibility in how they interpret the data: the president of a club gets 150 points; a student body president, 300. Period. Special talents—excellence at the oboe, a talent for chess—are worth up to 300 points. Volunteer service and participation in motivational or enrichment programs are similarly scored. (This is where Student B got her crucial 300 points.)

A final category, called personal challenges—which has been roundly assailed by critics of comprehensive review—serves as a catch-all for powerful or transformative life events that don't fit anywhere else, but suggest that the student has been particularly resilient or resourceful. “It could be a negative experience that impacted a kid, like shootings in school, or the death of a parent,” says Nathan Evans, associate director of UCSD Admissions. “Or it might be a student who has traveled and spent time in a vastly different culture, returns home, and initiates a community organization to promote cross-cultural dialogue. It really covers a broad range of experience.” Personal challenges can garner up to 500 points, though the majority of candidates—including students A and B—receive none at all.

Each application is examined twice, once by a member of the UCSD admissions staff, and once by one of the 80 outside readers. The two readings virtually always come up with an identical score. To be absolutely fair, readers are trained to know exactly what activities get what number of points so there won't be discrepancies between applications. “This is not a personal judgment on the applicant, and it is not subjective,” says admissions director Mae Brown. “It is as close to scientific as we can make it.”

The reader-generated score is then added to the academic and socioeconomic numbers, and students are ranked accordingly. (When two readers disagree, the application is sent to a third reader to break the tie.) This year, students, who scored 7,456 or above were admitted.

The results of this culling tend to be fairly predictable. “Occasionally there are surprises,” says Sarah Pruden, a

college-career specialist at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley—where roughly 20 percent of the students go on to UC. “But there aren't many. I generally think these colleges know what they're doing.”

To explain those occasional “surprises,” in the weeks following notification, all UCSD admissions officers work the phones. The University is prepared to tell every disappointed student by exactly how many points he or she missed becoming a Triton. “We can review a file, and say, well, your score was 6,000 and you missed the cut by 1,482 points. We can say, you didn't have any points for public service, and you had no points for special talents and awards,” says Brown. “We provide that kind of specificity. It's very hectic, we receive hundreds of phone calls, but we feel that every one of those students is entitled to know why he or she was not admitted.”

It's too soon to draw any firm conclusions from three years of comprehensive review, but most of the hard statistics have been modestly encouraging. The students admitted under the system seem to be flourishing: attrition rates and grades have held steady. “We're continuing to see increases in the academic qualifications of incoming classes at the same time that we're seeing broadening of the types of

students we get,” says Sawrey. “We're seeing more first-

generation college students and more low-income students without sacrificing academic quality. And that, to me,

signals success.”

No admissions system will ever be perfect. There will always be kids who walk away wondering why they didn't get into the college of their choice. Meanwhile, the fierce political and philosophical debate about who exactly is entitled to a top-notch state-funded college education continues.

Jennifer Reese is a freelance writer, who lives in Northern California. She has written for Stanford and Dartmouth magazines.

RELATED LINKS

UCSD Announces Freshman Admissions
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University of California Admissions
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UCSD TV Programs related to admissions during the month of May 2004 - Richard Atkinson: College Admissions and the SAT
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UCSD TV Video On-Demand Archive
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UCSD TV College Bound Series
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"The students who do nothing but study often get lost when they go to college.  ...If you limit it to grades, you're missing a whole lot."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

" How did the University get away with discriminating so blatantly against Asians?" Moores wrote.