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UC Dilemma: Admitting Ethnic Diversity While Maintaining Academic Excellence

<i> John H. Bunzel is the former president of San Jose State University, a past member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution</i>

The position of the University of California’s Berkeley campus on affirmative action in the admissions process is much the same as most colleges and universities: It claims not to discriminate illegally on the basis of race or ethnic identification, claims it opposes fixed quotas and actively recruits and provides support for “underminorities” to achieve a diverse student population.

Berkeley officials were “pleased and excited” that the 1987 freshman class reflected “the actual ethnic distribution of California high school graduates: 2% American Indian, 25% Asian, 12% black, 17% Latino, 40% white and 4% who declined to state.” These are “especially significant percentages because we saw increases in enrollment in all student affirmative-action categories.”

But these percentages do not tell the whole story. Only by examining admissions data, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and other details is it possible to determine what the numbers mean in terms of the current conflict between perceived equity and excellence, between seeking proportional representation of all racial and ethnic groups and rewarding the highest individual achievement, between maintaining high academic standards and granting admissions “allowances” for certain minority students.

In this regard it should be pointed out that 40% of Berkeley’s 1987 entering class was selected on academic grounds alone--that is, on the basis of the Academic Index, a formula that includes SAT and achievement-test scores and high school grades that are weighted for honors courses. The other 60% were freshmen in “protected” categories, including beneficiaries of affirmative action and applicants who were neither highly competitive nor “protected,” but were admitted on the basis of minimum eligibility and other non-quantitative criteria.

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The pressures for both equal representation and equal performance present a dilemma for admissions officials, who respond to demands for significant representation for each group--knowing the different groups dependably produce different average scores.

It is not UC Berkeley’s commitment, however, to redress ethnic imbalances or to look at things other than SAT scores and grade-point averages that has created tension. The resentment comes from the feeling that Berkeley is reaching too far down to get students only marginally qualified. As one student asked, “Why should those who don’t have the grades to make it through Berkeley be given special preference over those who worked hard to put together the academic record they were told all through high school Berkeley was looking for?”

Perhaps the most dramatic difference between the evaluation of minority and non-minority students is that virtually all underrepresented minority applicants to Berkeley who have a grade-point average of 3.3 or higher on the required academic course-work in high school, or qualify for regular admission with a GPA between 2.78 and 3.29 and sufficiently high test scores, or whose SAT scores total at least 1,100, are admitted. In contrast, white or Asian students are rarely accepted without a GPA of at least 3.7 or 3.8.

For example, at no level of the Academic Index--that is, even with a perfect GPA and the highest test scores--did Asian or white applicants achieve a 100% admission rate. However, black applicants at the 5,800 level (out of a maximum Academic Index Score of 8,000) were admitted. A white or Asian applicant needed an Index Score of 7,000 to have a 50% chance of admission, while a black applicant needed only 4,800.

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Underrepresented minorities receive preference in admissions at most colleges and universities because of the size and characteristics of the top-flight national minority pool. The number of minority seniors eligible for admission to UC Berkeley--or an Ivy League school--is dishearteningly low. SAT scores of Asians and whites are much higher than those of American Indians, blacks and Latinos. Furthermore, these three affirmative-action groups are less likely to apply to college in the first place.

Other national data is equally sobering. In 1983, for example, fewer than 4,200 black college-bound seniors had grade-point averages of 3.75 or better. SAT scores--which, for all of their shortcomings, help to control for variations in high school quality and students’ course selections--show that only 66 black students had verbal SAT scores over 699, and 205 had math scores over 699, out of a total of 71,137 black secondary-school seniors who registered for the tests. Fewer than a thousand black students had verbal SAT scores of 600 or better, and fewer than 1,700 had comparable math scores.

This poses a serious problem for first-rank institutions trying to recruit minorities. The number of well-qualified blacks and Latinos is exhausted quickly; not-so-elite schools draw from a pool substantially less qualified. The supply of excellent minority students simply cannot meet the demand.

At the same time, non-minority students who have the scores and grades to obtain admission to Berkeley or Stanford are being turned away--and they are showing up in greater numbers at less prestigious schools. The result is that the gap between black (and other affirmative action) students and white and Asian students is significant, not just at the elite institutions but at most schools.

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According to a 1985 Report of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, only 838, or 3.6%, of the state’s 23,238 black public high school graduates in 1983 were eligible for regular admission to the University of California, compared with 13.2% of all graduating seniors. Only 2,258, or 4.9%, of the 43,823 Latino graduates completed the requirements for the university, compared with 25,338, or 15.5%, of the 163,470 white graduates and 4,171, or 26%, of the 16,043 Asian graduates. As a result, more than half of the 882 black first-time freshmen in fall 1983, and more than 45% of the university’s Latino first-time freshmen, were special-admissions students.

It is widely believed that the ability to succeed in college is equally distributed among all groups. But the ability to score 1,181 on the SAT (the mean total score for new UC Berkeley freshmen in 1986) is not. The mean score for new affirmative-action freshmen was 952 for blacks, 1,014 for Latinos and 1,082 for American Indians. The mean for whites was 1,232 and for Asians, 1,254.

The proportion of new freshmen who have an SAT total score of 1,000 or less dropped from 24% in 1978 to 19% in 1986. But a much larger proportion are now from affirmative-action ethnic groups.

Many observers believe a major review of the affirmative-action admissions policy is needed, including the legislative mandate that “enrollments at all state universities should reflect the proportional representation of ethnic groups among the state’s high school graduates.” UC President David P. Gardner has warned that proportional representation will “inevitably lead to ethnic quotas.”

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One change would be for the university to clarify what is and what is not discrimination in the admissions process. If it takes higher grades and test scores for members of any group to get into Berkeley, would university officials acknowledge that the group has been discriminated against? If, on the other hand, it takes lower numbers for the members of any group to be admitted, would they deny that group has been favored by discrimination?

The university could also make public the special preferences given certain groups and explain how the system works. As diversity has taken on a new luster, have race and ethnicity been legitimized as proper grounds for preferential treatment?

The university could also announce that disadvantaged students (specifically defined) of all races will be eligible for sympathetic consideration. Why should diversity automatically be equated with racial minorities? Why shouldn’t inner-city students with poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of race, be recruitment targets?

Finally, the university should make clear that no student will be rejected because of his or her race in favor of another who is less qualified, and that no applications will be held to a different standard because of race.

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