Affirmative action was the subject last week when Esther Hugo's College Peer Counselors--a student outreach group--gathered for its weekly meeting at Westchester High School.
"We talk about anything that affects students," says Hugo, the school's college counselor, "and they were concerned about the news that the University of California Board of Regents may drop its affirmative action program for admissions.
"They were confused, and so was I," Hugo says. "The regents seemed to be saying we no longer need affirmative action, and the students found this discouraging. Westchester is a predominantly African American population, and our figures are good--we sent 50% of our seniors to four-year schools and 40% to two-year schools last year. But African American college numbers in general are still small."
"All our kids this year have already applied, so it doesn't affect them," said Mike diDonato, a counselor at Costa Mesa High School. "I really can't tell what effect it might have next year."
Uncertainty and confusion were just two of the reactions as high schools throughout the state pondered the news last week that affirmative action could be scrapped by the prestigious UC system, whose admissions are designed to select from the top 12% of the state's graduating high school seniors every year.
UC Regent Ward Connerly, a Sacramento businessman, introduced the issue earlier this month in San Francisco at meetings of the board and of its affirmative action committee. Connerly, an African American, told the board that he thinks the UC system gives too much weight to gender and race when picking students in the highly competitive admissions process, and he wants an alternative to what he sees as race-based admissions.
Affirmative action was necessary in 1965, but it isn't today, Connerly told the committee. "It's reached a point of diminishing returns."
That's not how the situation looks from the college counselor viewpoint. "I haven't seen any evidence of race being a dominant factor," says Hugo, a board member of the Western Assn. of College Admission Counselors and High School College Counselors.
"I was on the UCLA admissions committee last year, and all the applications I read were UC eligible," she says. "The test scores might have been a little bit flexible, but all the students were in the arena in terms of preparation and capability."
What Connerly would change is a longtime UC policy that a student body should represent the cultural, racial, economic and social diversity of the state of California.
To achieve this, the nine UC campuses enroll about 60% of their students on the basis of grades and tests, including SATs (Scholastic Assessment Tests). In the belief that test scores are not the only measure of student potential, admissions offices enroll 40% on the basis of grades and other factors, including special talents and experiences, income, family background, race and ethnicity.
Connerly maintains this system has been corrupted. "We are relying on race and ethnicity not as one of many factors, but as a dominant factor to the exclusion of all others," he told the regents.
This charge has raised protest mixed with dismay throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District high schools, where every faculty has a college counselor devoting at least part of his or her time to encouraging all students to think of themselves as college-bound.
Like Hugo, these counselors work with large numbers of students who because of language or economic disadvantages don't automatically plan on college. But groundwork--ranging from college nights and rigorous curriculum planning to preliminary scholastic tests and a constant push for scholarships--pays off, the counselors say. District figures show that almost eight out of 10 LAUSD high school graduates in 1994 went on to some sort of higher education.
"I don't see anything wrong with the system," Hugo says. "I don't understand why this is being mentioned at all. It seems to me you would want to educate all segments of your population. It doesn't seem very democratic for the UC system to pull out this kind of support."
No action has been taken; Connerly's proposal is still in the talking stage. He says he hopes to formally propose it to the board in June.
"I hope they have the wisdom to think this through before they make a decision," says Cassandra Roy at Crenshaw High School, where the college-going rate is 80%. "He may know something I don't, but from where I sit, I see students going to school and staying there for four years. I see the system working."
"This is just one more thing--it's the mood of the country and the mood of the state, and I can't wait until it passes," says Audrey Smith at John Marshall High School. "It is anti-'them' and in this case 'them' means ethnicity."
About 82% of Marshall seniors go on to some sort of higher education, 35% to four-year schools, Smith says. "I think affirmative action programs are working, I think they are necessary, and I think that UC will become a very elitist organization if they are dropped. The idea that they are letting people in just because they are of a certain race is just not true.
"It's very difficult to become eligible for UC. You have to go through a lot of hoops to get there, and any student accepted is capable of doing the work and has earned the right to be there."
Most of the counselors suggest that Connerly has simplified a complex situation. "I don't know where he is looking to evaluate the system that way," says Laurice Sommers at Hamilton High. With a highly transient and diverse population (42% African American, 29% Latino, 22% white and 7% Asian) the school sends 94% of its graduates to further education, about equally divided between two- and four-year schools.
Sommers thinks the phrase "affirmative action" is misunderstood and too often interpreted as "someone less qualified is going to get my spot or my job," whereas the reality, she says, is "a commitment to equal opportunity."
Talk of dropping affirmative action is "like a stab in the heart," says Sommers, who has been a counselor since 1983. "Today's reality is these kids are survivors. Sometimes they've learned English in school. Some of them go from school to work. Some of my kids don't stop and eat until they do homework at 10 o'clock at night. I am surprised at the number of teen-agers who are supporting themselves.
"The kinds of things these students have to overcome--their perseverance or determination or self-reliance--won't show up on a test score. Neither will the relative speed with which they have overcome handicaps. Race and ethnicity are only part of it."
At Immaculate Heart High School, a college preparatory school with an ethnically diverse female student body that sends 92% of its graduates to four-year colleges and 6% to two-year colleges, Elsa Clark reiterates the general insistence that "no one is sliding in."
"My experience has been that the UC system takes only qualified students," she says. "If they went back to (solely judging on SATs), it would be telling a particular group of applicants that we will no longer consider you. With our population in California, that doesn't seem like a logical thing to do."
For his part, Connerly says he wouldn't want to return to SAT scores alone for UC admission. "I've been persuaded that's not the way to go," he says. "I think we would skew the pool to the point where those who go to the best schools, who have the best advantages in life, would have an edge--that's not what we want. I don't want us to be an enclave of all white male students here.
"And," he adds, "I want to set the record straight that I didn't say there are unqualified blacks and Hispanics admitted to UC. I just don't want that 40% or 50% to be decided on the basis of race."
Acknowledging that "there are no easy answers," he also suggests that the regents should "fight for every penny we can get to admit more students. The best affirmative action program around is lower fees."
Connerly's proposal in June will be to phase out affirmative action, and he wants the regents to start debating it now. "We're not going to radically change the system," he says. "I just want to stop considering peoples' race or ethnicity in the equation of special considerations."
Although not all the regents have endorsed his stand and no vote has been taken, Connerly says, "I think it will pass."
At the LAUSD counseling office, Charles Espalin, director of counseling, calls the situation troubling.
"I'm not sure what they are really saying--are they listening to critics who say we have too many minorities in public education? The statistics don't reflect that."
He is also concerned that Connerly's proposal gives a double message to students. "Just as they are starting to hear teachers and counselors encourage them to think about college, they hear the colleges say they might be cutting back those opportunities and the old barricades might be put back up. It's very surprising from a so-called enlightened state such as California."
Although Espalin expects the board of education and the professional counseling associations to register their opposition with the regents, the issue is still in the talking stages, he says. "It seems to be an economic thing, really. Life is not the way many folks would like to see it, so they look for scapegoats."