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The Meaning of Fewer Minorities at UC, UCLA

<i> James Q. Wilson is emeritus professor of management and public policy at UCLA. His most recent book is "Moral Judgment."</i>

Last week, newspapers and television reported a sharp decline in the number of Latino and African American students admitted to the freshman class at UCLA and UC Berkeley. Some people will be deeply upset by this. An officer of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was quoted as saying that this means these campuses are returning to a “race-exclusive status.”

That is both the wrong answer and the wrong question. It is the wrong answer because, even after the passage of Proposition 209, which banned racial and ethnic preferences, a significant number of blacks (535) and Latinos (1,853) made the admissions list at one or the other university. They showed they have the ability to be students at two of the most selective public universities in the nation.

It is the wrong question because what happens at Berkeley and UCLA is not a measure of the college opportunities open to people. Higher education in America--ranging from open-admission community colleges to the most selective schools--offers a wide range of opportunities for people to match their college preparation with other students with whom they will be studying. The most interesting question about African Americans and Latinos who applied to Berkeley and UCLA is: Where will they actually study? My guess is that most will study at perfectly respectable universities. We already know that there was a sharp increase in blacks and Latinos admitted to UC Riverside. Many others will attend other equally good universities.

Selective universities must be choosy if they are to discharge their particular function in society. Ideally, that is to bring very good students into contact with professors who are doing the most important research. In practice, of course, such universities often miss the mark, consigning good students to classes taught by graduate students. But the goal is a good one. Were it a bad one, they might as well admit students by lottery.

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For whatever reason, African American and Latino students have not done as well on the Scholastic Assessment Tests. Take Berkeley in 1995. On the math SAT, the median score for enrolled blacks was 510, for Latinos, 560. By contrast, the median score for enrolled whites was 690, for Asian Americans, 750. Much the same difference existed for the verbal SAT.

These differences were so great that, for all practical purposes, Berkeley, in 1995, before the passage of Proposition 209, was admitting two groups of students whose measured abilities scarcely overlapped at all. Black and Latino students who had scores at the 75th percentile--that is, they had better scores than three-fourths of all black and Latino students--had lower scores than white and Asian American students at the 25th percentile.

As a result of these differences, several people have urged that selective universities abandon the SAT. Some critics contend that SAT scores, like many tests of mental ability, are unfair to minorities. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. SAT scores predict that black students will get better grades in college than what they actually receive. Abandoning SAT scores will lower the number of blacks admitted. Happily, the desire to abandon the SAT has been rejected. SAT scores, in combination with high school grades, do better at predicting college grades than any other set of measures.

Nevertheless, retaining these measures means that, in the near term, the selective universities will become a bit more white and Asian. This will be true even if the scores are supplemented by giving a bigger break to applicants from low-income families. This was done at Berkeley and UCLA, but admissions officers there discovered that there were as many poor white and Asian applicants as there were poor black and Latino ones.

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In the long term, the situation may change. SAT and high school grades are not perfect predictors of college ability. Some students with poorer scores will enter community colleges or less selective schools, do well, then apply for transfer to Berkeley or UCLA. Other students may attend more demanding high schools to get prepared for college.

But the gap between ethnicity and scores may never be eliminated. If that gap were easily changed by effort or attitude, we would not have noticed for the last half century or so big differences in the acceptance rates among white applicants to elite schools. For decades, Jewish students have been admitted to selective colleges and graduate programs at higher rates than Christian ones.

Does this ethnic “imbalance” hurt anyone? I think not. The better the students who are admitted, the better the college or graduate program. Students teach each other by example and precept at least as much as professors teach them by lecture or seminar. What did hurt these schools for a long time was a deliberate pattern of excluding talented Jews in order to keep colleges acceptably Christian. When that discrimination ended, the colleges got better.

What made them better was not that “Jewishness” enhanced the “diversity” of colleges, but that more talented students with a more diverse array of ideas (many of whom were Jewish) were admitted. The college got better, not because of ethnic diversity, but because of intellectual qualities.

Defenders of affirmative action speak of the need for diversity. But, to them, the only diversity that counts is one’s racial or ethnic identity. But that is a narrow view of the matter. Real diversity is the diversity of ideas and beliefs that produce challenging discussions, new theories and revised explanations. If what we really cared about was diversity, we would insist that colleges admit people of differing opinions.

But that is not what affirmative action in California meant. Admissions officers gave breaks to “Under-Represented Minorities” (officially defined as African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) but none to Vietnamese. They gave special breaks to blacks, even though there is a wide variety of opinion and economic status among blacks, and to some Latinos (Mexican Americans) but not others (Cubans). Even if you define diversity narrowly as ethnic identity, there never was any clear logic to the identities that made the privileged list and those that did not.

The best test of college admissions under Proposition 209 is not to consult the headline-grabbing statements of professional advocates, but to carry out a more thorough and careful examination. The University of California system should do three things. First, follow up a sample of all students who apply to find out where they go to college. Second, track carefully the college grades and graduation rates of a sample of minority students to find out how well they do in whatever college they attend. Third, interview a sample of admitted and rejected students to find out how they feel about what happened to them.

News stories suggest that there are differences of opinion among these students. The New York Times quotes one Latino student at Berkeley as saying that ending affirmative action hurt diversity, but quotes another Latino woman seeking to enter Berkeley that Proposition 209 just means she must work harder, and a third Latino applicant who felt that Proposition 209 now means that the schools “don’t emphasize who you are but what you do.”

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In the predictable outcome of this year’s admissions decisions, these voices are likely to be lost as activists take up their causes. The real lessons will be learned a few years down the road, when we get (if we try now) a better idea of how colleges function when they are free of racial and ethnic preferences.


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