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COLUMN ONE : Figuring Out Who to Let In : It takes more than good grades to get into state universities. The question now is what do diversity and merit mean in light of UC’s rules banning race and gender in admissions.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

There was a time when Stanford University judged its applicants on a scale of 1 to 10.

The system, used by the elite private college until 1941, was attractive in its simplicity. Performance in school earned an applicant up to three points. High scores on an aptitude test were worth another three. Four more points were distributed according to an assessment of personal qualities and general promise.

There was just one problem. Admissions officials felt that the system--which favored the most academically accomplished--made Stanford vulnerable to “the antisocial, maladjusted youth whose only recourse was book-learning. Regardless of his high scores and grades,” the registrar cautioned, “he should be avoided.”

Call it an anti-nerd clause.

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Today, as the University of California begins to grapple with its Board of Regents’ decision to scrap affirmative action and ban the use of race and gender in admissions, Stanford’s old policy serves as a reminder that colleges have long struggled to find the best way to evaluate students’ qualifications.

Polls suggest that most Californians believe university admissions should be based on merit, not race or gender.

But higher education experts say that merit is more than a simple amalgam of grades and test scores. It is a complicated concept that varies depending on an institution’s particular mission.

If a university seeks merely to teach facts, it will prize students who show aptitude for memorization. If it wants to have national reach, it will see merit in applicants from states not yet represented on campus. And if it wants students to learn from one another, it will value a broad mix of talents, experiences and backgrounds.

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The debate over affirmative action at UC, then, is at heart an argument about the future mandate of the nine-campus, 162,000-student system. Is the purpose of California’s premier academic institution to serve all the state’s diverse communities, or to reward superior academic performance? And is it possible to do both at once?

The same questions are being asked in the California State University system, where trustees are considering a proposal to phase outremedial education and deny admission to students who lack college-level English and math skills beginning in 2001.

Advocates of the proposal say it would safeguard the academic reputation of Cal State, allow the university to divert the $10 million it spends on remedial courses to other needs, and force kindergarten through 12th-grade schools to better prepare students for college.

Critics argue that ending remedial education would have the same effect they fear abolishing affirmative action would have: It would diminish the number of minorities in college.

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A disproportionate number of minorities are required to take remedial classes because they do poorly on university placement exams.

Like UC’s affirmative action ban, the Cal State proposal--which faces a trustee vote in January--has sparked protests from minority groups, elected officials and students.

At both UC and Cal State, the question is not whether diversity is a good thing--nearly everyone, including the regents and trustees, agree that it is. The argument is over whether diversity is an essential ingredient of a college education, one worth preserving even if that means admitting students whose grades and scores are not the highest.

Barry Munitz, chancellor of Cal State’s 22-campus system, says Californians seem to forget that public higher education is intended to lift everyone up, not only the very best.

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“Who said that education’s role was to pick out [only] the most likely winners, polish them up and send them out?” he asked. “Where in the history of education did we lose the argument that education’s role is to add value?”

But can we lift up the underprivileged whose potential has not yet been realized without penalizing those whose hard work has already resulted in academic accomplishment?

“If one person works hard, stays after school, puts in so much time and energy and plays by the rules, then he should have more rewards than somebody who doesn’t,” contends Frederick R. Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “If that person gets denied admission to UC Berkeley . . . that sets up a fundamental sense of injustice.”

That sense--that UC’s policies had tilted to favor minority applicants--was what prompted the regents to act in July, when they prohibited the use of race and gender as criteria in admissions decisions starting in 1997.

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“It takes all the state taxes paid by three working Californians to provide the public subsidy for a single undergraduate at [a UC],” Gov. Pete Wilson, who lobbied on behalf of the affirmative action ban, said at the time. State residents, he said, “deserve a guarantee that their children will get an equal opportunity to compete for admission to this university, regardless of their race or gender.”

But even before the changes, admissions experts say, every qualified student who applied was admitted to UC, though not necessarily to the campus of first choice. What made the debate grow bitter, they say, was competition for limited spots at UCLA and UC Berkeley, the most sought-after schools.

Moreover, many people’s anger was fueled by a common misperception: that the university opened its doors wide to unqualified blacks and Latinos, while slamming them on qualified whites and Asians.

In fact, 95% of UC students have test scores and grades that place them in the top 12.5% of the state’s high school graduates--the group of students that UC was created to serve. And every student in that group who applies to UC is admitted to one of its campuses.

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UCLA and UC Berkeley, the most competitive of UC campuses, reject more than half of their applicants. And because they do not rely on test scores or grades alone, but consider such things as extracurricular activities and special talents, a student with a grade-point average of 3.3 might make the cut, while a 3.6 GPA student does not.

“What this fight is really about is whether there is something inherently wrong with having somebody from the 91st percentile get ahead of somebody in the 94th,” said UC Berkeley sociology professor Jerome Karabel. “People have gotten enraged about some minor modifications to accomplish some worthy objectives that are entirely consistent with the academic standards of the institution.”

Admission Standards

How, in a society that so values excellence, can there be so much disagreement about how to measure it? Admissions experts say that even before affirmative action, merit has been a fluid concept that always has adapted to fit a particular college’s needs.

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“We must disabuse people of the idea that colleges should--or ever have--used a pure academic merit approach to admissions,” said Alexander W. Astin, director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. “It’s never been so and it shouldn’t be so.”

At public institutions, Astin said, academic achievement is supplemented by other admissions criteria because “the public interest is not merely to run a contest to reward high school students for good test scores. . . . When you educate a very skewed segment of the public in terms of economics and race, you’re not serving the public.”

But private colleges have also looked beyond mere numbers. Astin says that for years, the Ivy League used separate lower academic standards for applicants from rural areas. Just like policies that give preference to athletes or talented musicians, this was designed to create a well-rounded student body--and, by extension, a richer learning environment.

UC Berkeley sociology professor Troy Duster offers another example. When Brandeis University opened in Massachusetts in 1948, he says, it admitted students based on academic achievement alone.

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But when its student body turned out to be two-thirds women, Duster says, Brandeis altered its policies to create a gender balance--to admit what some would define as “less qualified” men. In other words, Brandeis found “merit” in students who brought gender diversity.

“Institutions have [individual] mandates. Brandeis was entitled as an institution to say, ‘We would like our students to be in classrooms that are more or less gender-balanced,’ ” Duster said.

Today, there are plenty of institutions that allocate scarce resources on the basis of much more than what many Americans think of as “pure” merit. And not the places you’d necessarily expect.

The National Merit Scholarship Corp. recognizes academically talented students for their scores on the PSAT, the preliminary standardized test taken during the junior year of high school. Of the million students who take the test each year, 15,000 are named semifinalists--an honor that can help students get admitted to college and makes them eligible to compete for monetary awards.

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But that honor goes not to the nation’s 15,000 top scorers. Instead, each state gets a share of semifinalists, according to the percentage of the nation’s test takers who reside there. And the scores required in order to be named a semifinalist vary by state. For example, out of a possible 240, a California student needed 214 or above to be named a semifinalist this year. Mississippians only had to score 197 or higher.

“We often get people who call and say it’s not really fair,” said Elaine Detweiler, the corporation’s spokeswoman. “But you have to look at the purpose of the program. The purpose is to recognize and honor academic merit across the nation.”

Admissions to the nation’s service academies--West Point and the Navy and Air Force academies--work on similar logic. Most applicants are nominated by their senator or Congress member--a method that ensures geographical representation in the applicant pool. Then, after officials evaluate qualifications--academic and athletic abilities and leadership skills--they try to make admissions decisions that reflect geographic diversity.

Even the august Rhodes Scholarship Trust, which chooses 32 American students each year to study at the University of Oxford in England, factors geography into its decisions. Dividing the United States into eight regions, the trust chooses four Rhodes scholars from each. The reason: The trust sees geographical diversity as a worthy goal, valued in concert with academic and athletic achievement.

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At UC, admissions officers also favor students from rural, traditionally underrepresented areas of the state--a preference that was not eliminated by the regents’ recent ban on affirmative action.

“The principle is the same: You’re trying to serve all segments of the society in a roughly equivalent way,” said UCLA’s Astin. “To me, geography is no more or less arbitrary than race. But it’s probably politically much less loaded.”

Defining Merit

Ask UCLA admissions director Rae Lee Siporin whether UC’s mission is to serve all the state’s diverse constituencies or to reward superior performance, and she will tell you she does both. But to see things her way, you have to understand how she defines merit.

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Each year, Siporin chooses more than 95% of the students in UCLA’s entering class from among the top 12.5% of the state’s high school graduates. Only the remaining 5% is made up of students who lack qualifying grades or test scores, and they are primarily athletes or applicants with special talents or disadvantages.

“That’s where the rhetoric is so damaging, because if you listen to it, you think we’ve dipped way down” to admit unqualified minority students to achieve racial balance, Siporin said. For the most part, “that’s not the case. We picked them up from inside the top 12.5%.”

But as she looks at the pool of more than 25,000 applicants--about 8,800 of whom have GPAs of 4.0 or above--Siporin does not select only the students whose grades and test scores are the very highest. Instead, she builds her freshman class in two steps.

First, Siporin and her colleagues admit 60% of the total--or about 7,000 students--on academic achievement alone. That achievement is measured by a combination of grades, test scores, honors and an analysis of how hard a student pushed in high school. (A student who took five honors courses at a school that had only five, for example, might be looked at more favorably than a student who took five of 20.)

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In the second step, to fill the remaining 4,000 spots, UCLA admissions officers aim to find students among the pool of qualified applicants whose talents might be missed by relying solely on grades or test scores: gifted musicians, eccentric philosophers, community volunteers or students who have fought to overcome hardship.

To identify those students, Siporin considers several factors in addition to academics, including special talents, extracurricular activities, socioeconomic disadvantage, physical and learning disabilities and--until the regents’ resolution takes effect--race and ethnicity.

Of the 11,000 students who are finally admitted, about a third choose to enroll.

“We’re trying to create a community that in some way represents the reality that these students are going to be living and working in once they graduate,” Siporin said.

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A similar process is played out across the nation by admissions officers who contend that some students whose achievements appear modest by traditional academic measures can contribute mightily to a college and to society.

Jean H. Fetter, a former dean of undergraduate admissions at Stanford, says that standardized test scores and high school grades, while indisputably correlated with college graduation rates, are at best limited predictors of academic performance.

Critics of the tests say they are biased to favor wealthy, non-minority students. And Fetter says there are serious questions about whether they measure the full range of an individual’s intelligence, let alone other personal qualities that contribute to success.

“They do not measure personal qualities such as persistence, resilience and determination, all of which can play a critical role in whether a student graduates or not,” she writes in her new book, “Questions and Admissions: Reflections on 100,000 Admissions Decisions at Stanford.”

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For that reason, Stanford today considers much more than numbers. Although the anti-nerd clause is a distant memory, some of its spirit remains, as officials attempt to build a freshman class that is rich in life experiences as well as academic achievement.

“As the writer Walker Percy has reminded us, ‘It’s possible to get all A’s and flunk life,’ ” Fetter writes.

Boon of Diversity

When he proposed doing away with racial preferences at the University of California earlier this year, Regent Ward Connerly warned that affirmative action was hurting the university’s quality.

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“There is absolutely no empirical evidence to support the contention that racial diversity translates into greater quality,” he wrote to the board chairman. “Personally, I am convinced that we are lowering the standards with our race-based admissions policies.”

But Fetter and many other educators seem to believe that diversity is, in a sense, a form of merit in itself. Students who will make a college more diverse should be valued, according to this argument, because--like quarterbacks or trumpet players or math whizzes--they will make college more rigorous socially and academically.

“You learn most from those who do not think as you do, from those who have had very different life experiences,” Fetter writes. “Students in homogeneous classes do not offer each other much potential for learning.”

How does this work? A 1991 study of UC Berkeley students found that the majority believed that despite increased ethnic diversity on campus, they had been given few opportunities for meaningful cross-cultural dialogue.

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But 10% of students said diversity had, in certain settings, made a big intellectual difference. When their professors assigned them to complete a task in small groups, they said, they learned as much from each other as from the information they were provided.

“They were not put together because they were two blacks, two whites and two Asians, but because they had an intellectual problem to solve,” said Duster, the UC Berkeley sociologist. “By making use of their differences, they solved the problem in new ways.”

If one of the missions of public higher education is to teach the next generation of Californians to be critical thinkers, Duster’s findings suggest that diversity can help accomplish that aim.

And if that is true, he and others say, the day may be coming when “merit” will be seen in a student’s potential as well as his or her accomplishment.

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“History is replete with examples of late bloomers, people like Einstein who in their middle and later years began to flower and achieve, but who did not reveal that at age 16,” Duster said. “So maybe we should be asking, ‘Who has the potential to challenge and to contribute to the intellectual dialogue of a nation or discipline or field of inquiry?’ Maybe, ‘What did you rank?’ is the wrong question.”

Next: A profile of Occidental College, where diversity brings tensions--and a new way of learning.

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About this Series

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In this series, The Times examines affirmative action, a policy that has left its imprint on the workplace and college campuses over the last 30 years. With some now questioning whether giving preferences to minorities has been fair to all, this series, which is appearing periodically throughout 1995, measures its impact on American institutions, ideas and attitudes.

* Previously: Why affirmative action became an issue in 1995, its legal underpinnings, its impact on presidential politics, the difficulties of defining a minority, the views of its beneficiaries, a Times poll showing ambivalent attitudes on the issue, how informal preferences have molded American life, the mind at work in racial stereotyping, the evolution of diversity programs in the workplace, affirmative action in sports and recruiting minorities, the legacy of affirmative action in the workplace, both public and private, and public contracting programs.

* TODAY: The controversy over college admissions, as universities struggle to find the best way to choose students.

* MONDAY: A profile of Occidental College, where diversity brings tensions--and a new way of learning.

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Who Would You Admit?

From a distance, admitting kids to college may seem easy. Up close, it looks anything but. At UCLA last year, admissions officers received 25,400 applications. They admitted fewer than 11,000. The four students below were among the contenders. By the time they were considered, UCLA officials had already chosen 60% of the freshman class based on academic achievement alone. These four competed to make up the remaining 40%, a group chosen using a combination of academic and supplemental factors. All had met the minimum academic requirements for admission to UC--their test scores and grades placed them in the top 12.5% of high school graduates. Only two got in. Who would you have admitted?

THE RULES

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* Consider grades, test scores and honors. (Last year, 80% of UCLA applicants who had GPAs of at least 3.6 and combined SAT scores of at least 1200 were admitted.)

* Try to go beyond the numbers; how hard did the students push themselves? Did they take advanced placement courses? Did they make the most of what their schools had to offer?

* Factor in supplemental information--do the students have special talents or extracurricular activities? Have they overcome socioeconomic disadvantages or disabilities?

* You can also consider race and ethnicity (because the regents’ resolution has not yet taken effect.)

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****

BLACK MALE

Grade point average: 3.3

Cumulative SAT score: 1210

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This student attended a high school that does not send many kids to UCLA. Over the past three years, 70% of its students who applied to UCLA ranked in the bottom third of applicants. But this student took tough courses and had earned advanced placement credit in the 11th grade. In his essay he described himself as a loner who loves to read and gets “lost” in books. His SAT scores were almost 500 points higher than the national average for African Americans.

****

WHITE FEMALE

Grade point average: 3.89

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Cumulative SAT score: 820

This student attended a religious school, which meant she had to juggle additional religious classes in addition to the normal load. Nevertheless, she chose a tough curriculum and did very well. Her SAT scores were low. But in the context of her school, she still stood out--67% of her classmates who applied to UCLA over three years ranked in the bottom one-third academically.

****

CHINESE AMERICAN FEMALE

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Grade point average: 3.68

Cumulative SAT score: 930

This student attended a school where half of her classmates who applied to UCLA ranked in the bottom third of applicants. But she was pushing herself: she was enrolled in four advanced placement courses in her junior year. Her essay and her transcript revealed that as recently as 10th grade, she was still learning English, which accounted for her low score on the language portion of the SAT--350 out of a possible 800--which pulled her cumulative score down. She had only been in the United States for three years.

****

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MEXICAN-AMERICAN MALE

Grade point average: 3.6

Cumulative SAT score: 840

This student attended a more challenging school than the previous two applicants, which might account for his lower GPA. He had completed a decent college preparatory program. And he came from a neighborhood that has a good track record of sending students to UCLA. In his essay, he said he became determined to educate himself when he watched his cousin get killed by gang members.

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Answer: The two male students admitted were the black and the Mexican American.

Source: UCLA Office of Undergraduate Admissions, UC Office of the President

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Affirmative Action at UC: Myth vs. Reality

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MYTH: Many believe that in order to assemble an ethnically diverse student body, UC has used affirmative action to justify reaching deep down in to the pool of students who do not meet the minimum academic standards.

Top 12.5%

Bottom 87.5%

REALITY: In fact, more than 95% of all students at UC are chosen from the top 12.5% of state’s high school graduates. The other 5% are admitted by exception from the remaining pool of students*.

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California’s High School Graduates

* In 1994, UC used this method to admit 1,024 students systemwide whose academic achievement placed them in the lower 87.5%. Of those, 698 were “disadvantaged,” meaning they had low incomes or limited educational opportunities or were underrepresented minorities. Athletes accounted for 187 special admits, 28 had special talents and 111 others demonstrated exceptional ability or marked improvement.

Sources: UCLA Office of Undergraduate Admissions and UC Berkeley Office of Undergraduate Admissions.


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