Latinos with low SAT scores are admitted to the University of California at rates only slightly higher than whites and Asians, while blacks who score poorly are significantly less likely to get in, according to a Times analysis.
All told, the groups underrepresented on UC campuses -- African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans -- are admitted with below-average SAT scores at the same rates as whites and Asians.
The analysis of freshman applicants to UC over the last two years offers a complex portrait of admissions at the public university, the state's most prestigious system of higher education.
The university's admissions practices have come under scrutiny in recent weeks amid a growing debate over the disclosure that hundreds of students were admitted to UC Berkeley last year with scores of 1000 or below on the SAT.
The national average on the widely used college entrance exam is about 1020 of a possible 1600. The average for students admitted in 2002 at UC Berkeley, generally the most competitive of the eight undergraduate campuses in the UC system, was 1337.
The debate on admissions practices focuses on whether the university's policy in recent years of considering personal factors, such as hardship, as well as academic qualifications, such as grades and test scores, has weakened the caliber of students. Critics have also questioned whether the policy is a back-door way around the state's ban on affirmative action.
The University of California provided data pertaining to applicants with scores of 1000 or below who sought admission to freshman classes in the fall of 2002 and 2003. The Times calculated the percentages.
Among the findings:
* Taken together, low-scoring blacks, Latinos and Native Americans were just as likely to be admitted as Asians and whites. The admission rate for both groups was 63%.
In all, 67% of low-scoring Latino applicants were admitted to at least one UC campus, compared with 65% of Asians and 60% of whites.
But only 49% of black applicants with similarly low scores were admitted.
* The picture was different at the university's two most competitive campuses, where Latinos and blacks -- who make up a smaller share of the student body relative to their numbers in the state's population -- were more likely to be accepted.
UC Berkeley, the original focus of the admissions debate, admitted low-scoring blacks and Latinos at twice the rate of Asians and whites with similar scores.
UCLA was about a quarter more likely to admit low-scoring African Americans and Latinos than whites and Asians.
Both campuses were much more selective than others, however. Berkeley accepted only 8% of all low-scoring applicants and UCLA 7%. In all, about 1,500 low-scoring students--a relatively small number -- were admitted at the two campuses over the two-year period.
* In most cases, though, having a low score on the SAT was not a bar to admission to the UC system.
Sixty-two percent of applicants with SAT scores of 1000 or below were accepted to at least one UC campus in the last two years. About half of those admitted students enrolled.
UC officials said the Times analysis was limited because it was based on the SAT, which they called just one factor in admissions and a weak indicator of college performance. But they saw some vindication in the findings.
"On the face of it, the findings suggest that UC admissions is on track and that, among eligible students, no single group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged in the admissions process," UC spokesman Michael Reese said in a prepared statement. "Furthermore, it appears that, consistent with Regents' policy, campuses are drawing from the full range of the eligibility pool."
Dennis Galligani, UC's associate vice president for student services, offered an explanation for some of the findings.
Throughout UC, he said, black students with low SAT scores are admitted at low rates because they, in disproportionate numbers, do not meet the university's basic qualifications. He said he did not know the reasons for that pattern.
The admissions controversy began several weeks ago, when John J. Moores, the chairman of the university's governing board, released a preliminary analysis of freshman admissions at UC Berkeley.
That report showed that in 2002, nearly 400 students with SAT scores of 600 to 1000 were admitted. Moores, a San Diego businessman, raised the concern that under-qualified students were diluting the quality of the flagship campus -- prompting UC Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl to call his actions irresponsible. UC President Robert C. Dynes has called for a broad review of admissions at all eight undergraduate campuses.
The report left many questions unanswered. Moores did not break his findings out by race or ethnicity, so did not address concerns raised by UC Regent Ward Connerly and others that under-qualified black and Latino students might be benefiting from preferences in violation of the state's affirmative action ban.
The ban, which applies to public institutions including colleges, was imposed by a 1996 ballot initiative successfully pushed by Connerly.
In the UC system, whites still make up the biggest share of the undergraduate population. According to 2002 figures, they constitute 37% of those students. Next come Asians, at 33%; Latinos, at 13%; and African Americans, at 3%.
At UC Berkeley, Asians are the largest group, at 38%, followed by whites, at 30%; Latinos, at 10%; and African Americans, 4%.
Asians also are the biggest group at UCLA, at 35%, followed by whites, at 33%, Latinos, at 15%, and African Americans, 4%.
Connerly said Friday that he was pleased at The Times' overall finding that applicants were neither helped nor hurt by their race or ethnicity.
"I am heartened to hear that there is no significant disparity systemwide between the underrepresented students" and others, Connerly said.
"But I think one still has to ask, are we displacing anybody at the top end? Are we taking a lower-achieving crop of students in order to preserve this diversity on our campuses?"
The data released by UC do not allow a determination on whether the low-scoring students are displacing applicants with higher SAT scores. UC officials said that in many cases these two groups of students are not in direct competition for slots, in part because the higher scoring students are often applying to the most competitive schools within the university, such as computer science and engineering.
Moores said it was "gratifying" to learn that UC admissions did not appear to be racially biased. "We're a multiethnic state, and I would hope that's the case," he said.
But he, along with Connerly, expressed surprise at the high rate at which students who score 1000 or below on the SAT are admitted to the UC system. "What the university's motivation in all this is beats the hell out of me, but it's not about academic excellence," Moores said.
Several admissions experts both within and outside the UC system said that, overall, UC appeared to be evaluating students fairly.
"It strikes me that the UC admissions committee is doing its work," said William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis. "There can be quite rational and valid reasons why they have admitted students with SATs under 1000, especially when a vast majority of those students appear to have SATs over 900, and it does not seem to be that race [was] a crucial indicator."
The admissions debate flows largely from the adoption two years ago of "comprehensive review," a policy that directed campuses to consider personal factors along with grades and test scores for every applicant. It was intended to broaden admissions to students from diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds without factoring in race and ethnicity.
Among the state's major racial and ethnic categories, only Asians attend UC schools in percentages that exceed their share of California's public high school graduates. According to 2002 figures, Asians account for 15% of the state's 325,895 public high school graduates. Latinos represent 33% of such graduates, and blacks come to 7%. The biggest group, whites, accounted for 43%.
UC contends the admissions guidelines allow the system to evaluate students more completely. UC officials also stress that the SAT's importance in UC admissions has diminished because of growing concerns about its usefulness and fairness. In fact, the test is being revamped by its owner, the College Board, largely as the result of complaints from former UC President Richard C. Atkinson.
"It's a dead test in many ways," said Galligani, the UC associate vice president for student services.
The UC data do not provide clear signals on what might give applicants an edge in admission. For instance, the quality of a low-scoring applicant's high school -- a possible sign of challenging personal circumstances -- appears to have varying influence on the likelihood of being accepted.
Latinos were far more likely to be admitted if they came from a low-performing high school, but the quality of high school appeared to have little effect in the case of Asians, whites and blacks.
Overall, Galligani said, a high percentage of UC applicants with low SATs are admitted largely because students are aware of the university's basic eligibility requirements -- which, if met, guarantee admission to one of the system's campuses.
The criteria are designed to allow admission to the top 12.5% of the state's high school graduates -- as determined by test scores and grades -- although all campuses apart from UC Riverside impose additional requirements.
UC maintains an index, available on the Internet, that shows which combinations of grade point averages and entrance exam scores meet the requirements. As a result, UC officials said, students with low SAT scores who are unlikely to qualify don't tend to apply.
"It's very obvious," Galligani said. "A student absolutely knows whether or not they are eligible for University of California."
Galligani called the higher admissions rates for Latino and black students at Berkeley and UCLA "very modest differences" from the overall admissions pattern. Some of the admitted students, he said, may have received consideration because they came from poor-performing schools.
Others may have gained entry through the university's so-called 4% Plan. The program guarantees admission to a UC campus -- although not necessarily the campus of choice -- to the top 4% of graduates from every public and private California high school that participates in the plan.
The 4% Plan helps students at poor high schools because even some top graduates there couldn't compete with the students admitted under the criteria that allow the top 12.5% of all high school graduates to enter the UC. The 12.5% formula applies to all students; the 4% Plan applies to each campus.
The Times analysis shows that the effects of the UC's admissions policy are different on each campus. Not surprisingly, these differences are most dramatic when the most competitive campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA, are compared to the least, UC Riverside.
The Riverside campus is the primary destination for students who meet UC requirements but are rejected at other campuses. Half of the low-scoring students admitted to UC in the past two years, nearly 9,400, were admitted to UC Riverside. Nearly a third of those students enrolled.
James Sandoval, vice chancellor for student affairs at UC Riverside, said his campus is committed to accepting all students who are eligible for UC admission. Students rejected by the other more selective campuses accounted for 200 to 250 of last year's freshman class of 3,200 students, he said.
"Our students are just as successful as those at any other campus," Sandoval said. "They've earned it. Nobody's made an exception."
For their part, UC Berkeley and UCLA officials declined to comment at length on the Times analysis but said their admissions are consistent with university policies, which do not give priority to the SAT. UCLA issued a statement that a student's high school grade point average is given greatest weight among academic criteria in admissions, followed by SAT II and SAT scores. The SAT II is a test of a particular academic subject.
In any case, "more than nine out of 10 [low-scoring students] are being rejected on both the UCLA and the Berkeley campuses," said Alexander W. Astin, director of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.
One UC regent who favors "comprehensive review" said it is not surprising that the two most competitive campuses admit low-scoring underrepresented minorities at a greater rate. At such campuses, Judith Hopkinson said, students must demonstrate "multiple compound disadvantages" to get accepted with lower scores. And often, she said, these students are minorities.
College counselor John Mandell of Locke High School near Watts deals with such students all the time.
On Friday, he remembered several African American students with SAT scores below 1000 who were rejected by USC for a few years but accepted by UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and other UC campuses.
He said the students' extracurricular activities, community involvement and personal experiences made the difference.
The students who made it to the UC system either played in the Locke school band, he said, participated in student government, tutored others, volunteered in the community or faced hardships at home.
"The public's thinking is that if a kid has a 1400 SAT score and a 4.0 grade point average, they should be admitted to the UC, " Mandell said. "I think that's bull."
He tells his students that the UCs "are looking for people who will contribute to society."
Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.