UCLA’s new admission policy rights a wrong

It’s no secret that the number of African American students admitted to UCLA plummeted after 1996, when Proposition 209 was passed. The proposition banned “preferential treatment” of race, sex or ethnicity in admissions to California’s public universities, and by fall 2006, only 250 of the 12,189 students admitted to UCLA’s freshman class were African American. That’s about 2% -- the lowest number since at least 1973.

Last year, however, UCLA officials implemented a new admissions policy. Under this “holistic” admissions approach, the university said it would consider applicants’ grades and test scores more fully in the context of their life experiences. Admissions officers would not consider race, gender or ethnicity as a plus -- which would be illegal -- but they would consider all available information about a student at the same time (where previously, the files of applicants were divided into academic and personal areas and read by separate reviewers). Although racial preferences were forbidden, socioeconomic and other factors could be taken into account.

The result: The number of African American freshmen admitted to UCLA in 2007 climbed to 407, and this year it climbed again to 453 -- nearly double the 2006 number. Of those, about 235 are expected to attend.

To me, that’s important progress. But critics are already suggesting that this increase in the relatively small number of African American freshmen admitted somehow constitutes evidence of “illegal admissions practices.” Anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, for example, suggested the university was trying to “rig the system.” And last month, political science professor Tim Groseclose resigned from the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools, saying that UCLA is “cheating” on admissions and engaging in a “cover-up” to keep it from being discovered.

That’s nonsense. Holistic review is not a way to get around Proposition 209. It simply considers more of the factors in an applicant’s life that we know have a bearing on success in college and beyond. Critics incorrectly assume that increases in black admissions, under holistic review, cannot be justified on the basis of merit alone. This is because they ignore three important facts:

1. UCLA’s former admissions process was a failure. The truth is that UCLA’s previous admissions process unfairly suppressed the number of black students admitted to the campus. It placed far too much emphasis on grade-point average and standardized test scores in isolation. As a result, it failed to adequately account for other important measures of merit, such as those that often come out in a candidate’s personal essay (tenacity, creativity or a commitment to community service, for example). Several years ago, UC Berkeley was sued for this very reason and, in settlement of the lawsuit, changed its admissions process to one resembling UCLA’s new model.

What critics cite as evidence of cheating, I contend, are merely corrections associated with the implementation of a fairer admissions process (for all applicants) that weighs the numbers within the context of other important factors.

2. GPA and standardized test scores are not objective measures of merit. The research literature is clear: Although GPA is a little better than standardized test scores, neither does a great job of predicting academic success in college. In fact, beyond a certain point, differences in these numbers are not very meaningful at all. Although it was slightly lower than that of the most highly admitted groups, the average GPA of admitted black students has exceeded 4.0 in recent years.

UCLA’s old admissions approach relied too heavily on GPA and standardized test scores as part of an expedient scheme for allocating scarce admissions slots in the face of skyrocketing demand. But the process didn’t really make valid distinctions between those who actually deserved access and those who did not. The truth is that the vast majority of the 47,317 students who applied for one of UCLA’s 4,800 freshmen slots in 2006 had scores and grades that suggested they were more than capable of excelling on the campus.

Unfortunately, deserving African American students often weren’t able to win admission under the old process -- despite other compelling evidence of their potential -- because so many attended majority minority public schools that offered fewer opportunities to inflate their numbers by, for example, taking a large numbers of advanced placement courses (which can push your GPA above 4.0).

3. UC’s mission mandates diversity. As a publicly supported institution of higher learning, the University of California is charged with educating the state’s future leaders in science, business and the arts. In 2001, the UC regents reaffirmed the university’s commitment to diversity, stating that each of its campuses should “seek out and enroll” a student body of academic achievers, but also one that reflects the “diversity of backgrounds characteristic of California.”

Nowhere, I should point out, is it mandated that UC must admit only the applicants with the highest GPAs and test scores. Indeed, to rely solely on these measures of merit, when we know that doing so works against diversity, is to operate at odds with the university’s mission.

UCLA’s holistic review process clearly is more consistent with that mission (not to mention federal law) than the one it replaces. Indeed, the campus’ admissions philosophy states that the goal of holistic review is “to single out from a large and growing pool of academically strong applicants those unique individuals who have demonstrated the intellectual curiosity, tenacity and commitment to community service expected of the UCLA graduate. ... Although high school grade-point average and standardized test scores are important indicators of academic achievement used in UCLA’s admissions review, they only tell part of the story.”

In other words, both the University of California’s mission and UCLA’s admissions philosophy rightly invoke other important factors that the numbers alone cannot capture -- factors that we know are crucial to the success of the state’s future leaders.

Darnell M. Hunt is a professor of sociology at UCLA and director of the university’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.