Social class has had more effect on whether a student will attend the University of California system than any other factor, including race, according to a new study of California high schools by UC Berkeley sociologists.
One of five students admitted to the UC system in 1999 came from 100 elite private and public schools, the study of California high schools found. By contrast, fewer than one out of 200 students who were admitted were from schools that had low-income and heavily minority student bodies.
The top "feeder" schools, which send the highest percentage of graduates to UC, are nearly all private and located in San Francisco or Los Angeles suburbs. Many of the schools in the state that send the fewest students to UC are in the Central Valley or in low-income urban areas of Los Angeles County.
It may be no surprise that wealthy students have educational advantages, but "what's surprising is how strong the association is" between affluence and UC admission, said Isaac Martin, a coauthor of the study with sociologist Jerome Karabel and Los Angeles lawyer Sean Jaquez.
Karabel headed a 1989 commission that helped establish UC Berkeley's undergraduate admissions policies with regard to race and class in the 1990s.
The sociologists' study emerges as UC officials find their admissions practices under criticism from a very different quarter. A report by UC Board of Regents' President John Moores recently called into question Berkeley's admission of hundreds of students in 2002 who had SAT scores of 1000 or below. The top score is 1600.
The sociologists' study did not examine SAT scores and grades for individual applicants or schools. But Martin said the probable reason for the dramatic differences in UC admission is that students from better schools have higher test scores and have done more advanced course work.
"Students who go to these privileged schools have all kinds of resources that permit them to meet UC's admissions standards," he said.
Stronger teachers, curriculum and college guidance give "a few lucky students ... a royal road to UC, while others are stuck in schools with almost no access," said Martin, a sociologist with the UC Institute for Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley.
Arcadia High School sent more graduates to UC in 1999 than the bottom 50 schools combined, the study found.
Barbara Sawrey, a UC San Diego professor who heads the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, said UC is attempting to be more accessible to low-income students, especially those from high schools that send few students to the system.
In 2001, after the period covered by the study, the system began a program to guarantee a slot at a UC campus -- though not necessarily the campus of choice -- to any student ranked in the top 4% of the graduating class at any public or private California high school that participates in the program. And beginning in 2002, the admissions policy gave more consideration than before to factors such as the quality of an applicant's high school and personal attributes such as leadership and an ability to overcome hardships.
A UC assessment of new policies, however, found they did not substantially raise the percentage of low-income, first-generation college students at UC campuses.
Between 1999 and 2003, the percentage of first-generation college students admitted to UC rose from 30.8 to 32.4, "a modest increase," Sawrey said.
Meaningfully reducing the disparities in UC admission will require a commitment by "teachers at the schools, school boards, families, everybody in education" to improve K-12 education and encourage students to attend college, Sawrey said.
Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said UC could do more for low-income students, such as expanding outreach efforts to high schools, but "you can only solve so many problems at the admissions office."
Solutions need to address "K-12 education, family income, poverty, etc.," he said.
The defining trait of the top feeder high schools was a high education level among parents. At the 50 public schools with the highest percentage of UC entrants, nearly 38% of parents had attended graduate school; at the bottom 50, fewer than 5% of parents had some postgraduate education.
Parental income was also important. Only about 8% of students at the top 50 public schools received subsidized meals, compared with 46% at the bottom 50 schools.
Race was less of a factor, particularly among black students. African Americans made up about 7% of students at the top 50 schools and 9% of students at the bottom 50.
Nearly 10% of students at the top 50 feeders were Latino, compared with Latino enrollment of about 36% at the bottom 50 schools.
Elite private schools had the highest percentage of graduates admitted to UC, with nine schools posting UC acceptance rates higher than 70%. Only one public school -- Whitney High, a selective school in Cerritos -- had such a high UC acceptance rate.
The study might understate the ability of students at top private schools to enter UC. The authors believe some students at those schools might have foregone applying to UC altogether while applying to prestigious private schools.
For example, at Pasadena's Polytechnic School, more graduates since 1999 have attended Stanford than Berkeley, and more have gone on to Harvard and Yale than to UCLA, according to a list provided by the school.
"In essence, we have a tripartite school system in California," Karabel said. "At the top are elite private schools, which in many cases come close to guaranteeing their students a place in the UC system; then we have a tier of largely suburban public schools that give people a good shot, but well short of guarantee; then there are the masses of schools at which getting in to UC is an extremely rare event."
Martin said the disparity among high schools is especially troubling in California, because the state has long emphasized that high-quality state universities must be accessible to the public.
He said that new admissions policies at UC are a step in the right direction, though he recommended further reducing the emphasis on SAT scores, which the study notes were not required by the UC system until 1968. Lower-income students typically score lower on the SAT than those with higher incomes.
Martin also advocates giving more emphasis to a student's high school class rank, perhaps by expanding the 4% program to grant admission to a higher percentage of graduates. The study notes that the University of Texas offers admission to the top 10% of high school graduates.
"We think it is appropriate to reward students who do well in their high school," he said.
At University High School in Irvine, one of the top 25 public schools in its percentage of graduates admitted to UC, college counselor Mike Buttuell credits much of the school's success to high parental education levels. "The kids come from backgrounds where the parents went to college. The parents succeeded, enabling the families to move to affluent areas like Irvine, and they reinforce how important education is," he said.
A notable exception in the study is the California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS) in Carson. The school's percentage of graduates admitted to UC (68.6%) was second-highest among public schools. But the school does not have an affluent student population -- 43% of its students qualify for subsidized meals, 13% of students are African American and 32% are Latino.
Admission to the school, however, is competitive. The current freshman class of 167 was chosen from among 935 applicants.
Barry Baker, the school's head counselor, said high expectations at the school are responsible for the large number of graduates admitted to UC.
The school's course requirements, including the equivalent of six years of science and four years of math with calculus, exceed UC admissions requirements. Most students also take a college planning course offered by the school.
Baker said adopting elements of his school's program, especially its small enrollment -- 600 students -- could help other schools prepare more students for rigorous college work. "They can be more successful by giving students more personal attention and placing a greater emphasis on academics.... There are lots of distractions on high school campuses."
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UC feeder schools
*--* % of graduates Top 25 Type Location admitted to UC Lick-Wilmerding High Private San Francisco 85.9 College Preparatory Private Oakland 84.0 Head-Royce Private Oakland 83.8 Whitney High Public Cerritos 82.5 San Francisco University Private San Francisco 81.3 High Urban School of San Private San Francisco 73.7 Francisco Harvard-Westlake Private North Hollywood 72.5 Windward Private Los Angeles 72.0 Marin Academy Private San Rafael 72.0 Westridge Private Pasadena 70.4 Marymount High Private Los Angeles 68.6 CA Academy of Math. and Public Carson 68.6 Science Marlborough Private Los Angeles 68.4 Flintridge Preparatory Private La Canada 68.1 Viewpoint Private Calabasas 67.6 Chadwick Private Palos Verdes 67.2 Estates Branson School Private Ross 66.7 St. Ignatius Preparatory Private San Francisco 65.0 Menlo Private Atherton 64.6 Loyola Private Los Angeles 64.2 Crystal Springs Uplands Private Hillsborough 64.1 Piedmont High Public Piedmont 63.6 Polytechnic Private Pasadena 62.9 Oakwood Secondary Private North Hollywood 61.6 San Marino High Public San Marino 58.0
Source: Unequal Opportunity: California High Schools and Access to the University of California, from University of California data for students admitted in 1999.