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2-Track Admission Is the Wrong Track

Sally C. Pipes is president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy

In mid-March, University of California regents will consider a proposal that would create an official two-track admission system at UC campuses. The plan, which was put forth by the faculty and has the support of Gov. Gray Davis, would create a second admission criterion to UC, which normally admits students based on academic peformance and test scores. Through this second door would walk students who performed in the top 4% of their particular high school based on the courses that qualify someone for UC admission.

This proposal is intended to increase the number of students eligible for UC and at the same time increase the system’s diversity. By mandate, the system is supposed to accept the top 12.5% of California’s graduating seniors, but only 11.1% are technically eligible under the present standards. By guaranteeing admission to the top 4% from each school, the thinking goes, the UC system could accept an added 3,500 or so students who are not in the first tier. Among these new students would likely be more minorities, thereby increasing the system’s diversity.

The logic is impeccable, except for the facts that it fails to incorporate. According to a February 1998 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a fifth of California’s graduates actually are eligible for UC based on their grades in UC-required course work and SAT scores. All the additional students would have to do to gain entrance is take three SAT II tests, commonly called achievement tests, which determine knowledge in specific subject areas. Many students don’t take these tests because they are not required for admission to the Cal State University system, which enrolls twice as many students as UC. Nor is the SAT II test required for admission to many other top universities. In other words, California’s students who have the grades to attend UC but choose not to take the tests are rejecting UC, not the other way around.

More important, the 4% scheme simply won’t work to significantly increase diversity. UC’s Office of the President predicts that under the 4% guarantee, eligibility rates for African Americans and Latinos will increase slightly. But eligibility for white, Asian and other students will rise as well. Thus the plan will likely do nothing for diversity at the most competitive schools.

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This has been the result at the University of Texas at Austin, where a much larger 10% of students from each high school recently were guaranteed admission. Under the plan, in the first year only nine additional African Americans enrolled in the university, which has nearly 7,000 new students each year. The class entering in 1998 had one fewer Latino student than the previous year.

Not only will the proposed plan for UC fail to achieve greater diversity, but, by breaking from a system of admissions based on individual comparisons, it will introduce perverse incentives into the education system for both students and institutions. Under such a plan, students will benefit from going to low performing schools. At the same time, low performing schools will have their failure masked by the guarantee that a certain percentage of their students will be UC-bound if they so choose.

If a school is of such poor quality that its top 4% aren’t strong enough academically to be eligible for UC when the system is willing to accept the top 12.5% of all high school students in California, then it should be examining its staff and its curricula. It should not be rewarded by UC allowing its top students to be admitted if their grades and performance are not up to snuff.

The likely failure of the Davis-backed plan to achieve significantly more African American and Latino admissions, combined with the perverse and unfair incentives the plan would produce, can’t be reconciled. Given disparate academic eligibility rates, ranging from 30% of Asians to 2.8% of African Americans, the only way UC will mirror the state’s diversity is if it admits by random lottery. No one would think that is fair.

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The only admission system that is fair is one that compares individual students to each other while retaining the flexibility to consider unusual circumstances such as overcoming adversity ranging from physical to family problems. Under such a system, everyone plays by the same rules and everyone has an incentive to achieve.

UC is closer to such a system now than it has been for many years. That the current system does not increase minority admissions in the short run is no reason to move hastily to a top-4% system that is less just and provides no incentive to either students or high schools to strive for higher standards. The move to a system that removes racial preferences has resulted in UC committing major resources to work with schools down to the elementary level to improve education and achievement and to prepare disadvantaged students to legitimately contend for UC admission.

There is no quick fix to underprepared students. Let’s give the current system a chance to work.


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