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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: How free should Berkeley be in picking students?

August 07, 2001

In its seemingly never-ending quest for new end runs around the 1996, Proposition 209 ban on affirmative action, the flagship Berkeley campus of the University of California now would like the freedom to evaluate every freshman applicant on the basis of a combination of academics and personal factors.

This, of couse, is precisely how colleges like Stanford, Pomona, Harvard, Claremont, Yale and California Lutheran choose their students.

But those are private schools, not dependent on taxpayers for the vast bulk of their funding. All UC campuses, including Berkeley, get more than 80 percent of their money from the state budget.

Because of this, most UC admissions have long been based on objective criteria like grades and test scores. UC policy now requires between 50 percent and 75 percent of each freshman class be admitted solely on the basis of academic achievement. The actual percentages range from about 50 percent at Berkeley to almost 75 percent at UC Santa Barbara.


Those rules guarantee that every California high school student has an even shot at getting into the state's most elite public campuses. They are supposed to eliminate factors like which college a student's parents attended or the contributions a wealthy parent might make.

True, all things are not equal, even in things like grades and test scores. It's easier to make good marks at some high schools than others.

Scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test also are linked to economic and social factors in every study.

In California, this has meant that whites and Asians have fared better in UC admissions than blacks and Hispanics ever since the university has been unable to factor in things like gender and ethnicity. The university has tried tactics like granting automatic acceptance to anyone in the top 4 percent of a California high school graduating class and actively recruiting minority applications. These things have not worked well in restoring the diversity administrators want.

So last spring, Berkeley's admission staff decided to seek permission from university regents to evaluate each admission candidate individually, using personal factors along with academics.

"We think we get better, more interesting, more talented students" that way, explained Calvin Moore, chairman of Berkeley's undergraduate admissions committee. Translation: Since personal factors can include things like the effects of race, gender and economic status, Berkeley could expand its Hispanic and black numbers by changing its current rules.

In one way, that is congruent with the university's stated purpose of serving all the state's citizenry. Since few whites and Asians are likely to set up shop in ghettos or barrios as doctors, lawyers or other professionals after they graduate, if the university is to serve the state's black and Latino citizens, maybe it should be allowed to use ethnicity as an admissions factor.

But that would be a plain avoidance of state law, which forbids any role for such things. What's more, it would end any pretense of objectivity in Berkeley admissions.

How to resolve this dilemma? Since grades and test scores are at least as firmly linked to economics as to race, why not set up a formula that gives slightly more weight to the good grades of poorer students, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or any other such factor?

That would be a recognition of reality, evening the playing field for all high-schoolers while retaining the principle of objective standards that served Berkeley so well all through the last century.

As it is, UC schools can admit 2 percent of their students on the basis of "special talents," entirely aside from academics. That's the way many linebackers and point guards now make it into Berkeley and UCLA.

But to expand totally non-objective criteria to the student body as a whole is completely inappropriate for a public university and would be certain to erode the public support on which their fate ultimately depends.

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