UC’s Quirky Door

Times Staff Writer

Even in a public university system, admissions can be a quirky thing. At the University of California, an inordinate fuss has been made over whether too many students with below-average SATs have been accepted. They get in partly because they had to overcome significant hurdles in life; one such student was a young veteran of foster homes who supported himself through his senior year of high school and still earned top grades.

Last year, Regent John J. Moores sharply criticized the UC policy (called comprehensive review) that allows admissions officers to look deeper than grades and SAT scores. After a statewide ruckus ensued, a Times review this week found that the university accepted fewer low-SAT students this year. The university said that represents a one-year burp, not a change in policy. We hope that’s true.

Moores thought he saw an unfair advantage to disadvantaged students, constituting a form of affirmative action. The bigger question is, why aren’t Moores and other regents more upset about another UC admissions policy that gives an unfair advantage to students from well-heeled high schools?

Last year, this editorial page criticized UC for giving applicants an extra grade point for Advanced Placement and similar courses. A study had shown that students who took the courses didn’t do well enough in college to justify the admissions advantage, in which an A becomes a 5.0, a B a 4.0, and so forth.

Since then, the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education has produced a new study that refines the picture. Students who take Advanced Placement courses and also score well on the standardized AP exam do exceptionally well in college, the study found. But AP students who take the courses but don’t take the exams, or score poorly, fare no better in college than non-AP students. Yet UC continues to give them the grade boost. The report further notes that despite attempts to bring more AP courses to all high schools, middle-class students still have far more access to these advanced classes. Though admissions policies should encourage students to take challenging courses, the added-point system has disproportionate weight and needs revision.

UC also should study how students admitted under comprehensive review fare in college. With more prospective freshmen seeking a space every year in the elite university system, Moores is right in saying that admissions should be fair -- but that means eliminating meaningless bonus points and leveling the field when the public schools aren’t fair.