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Unintentional Whitening of U. of California?

February 5, 2009

For several years now, the University of California has been debating plans to drop the SAT Subject Tests (formerly called the SAT II or achievement tests) and to find ways to consider more minority applicants. The debate has focused on the relative merits (or lack thereof) of the SAT and how to promote diversity while not violating the state's ban on affirmative action.

In the past few days, however, a new issue has started to attract attention: concerns that the admissions policy changes that are expected to be approved by the Board of Regents today could lead to a significant drop in the numbers of Asian-American applicants who are admitted -- with the major gains going to white applicants.

According to data prepared by the university and just starting to receive attention, 36 percent of those admitted to the university system in 2007-8 were Asian Americans. Applying the new admissions standards, that percentage would drop to 29-32 percent. In contrast, white applicants made up 34 percent of those admitted in 2007-8. Under the proposed reforms, they would have made up 41 to 44 percent of the entering class. The bottom line is that Asian Americans would shift from being the largest group gaining admission to the University of California to the second.

Some Asian American groups are calling on the Board of Regents to hold off on any vote today, raising questions about the fairness and wisdom of the changes being considered. (A board subcommittee approved the plan Wednesday, unanimously.)

"All of us share the goal of trying to preserve excellence as well as to promote diversity. But the gains for Latinos and African Americans in these projections are very small, while the decreases for Asian Americans and the gains for whites are quite large," said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a national group based in California. "There's almost a swapping out of Asian students for white students. Let's not rush this thing."

But university leaders are playing down the demographic projections and defending the admissions plan, which emerged from the Academic Senate, a system-wide faculty group. Mark G. Yudof, president of the university, said in a statement of the proposal: "It also sends a clear message to California high school students that if they work hard, take challenging courses and do well, they will get to make their case for admission to UC." The university system has been praised by faculty and student groups for the planned shift.

Admission to the University of California is enormously competitive, and families in the state long to be able to send children to its prestigious campuses, where they can be educated at top research universities at a fraction of what they would pay for a private institution. In California, race and admissions have been tangled and divisive for years. The success of Asian American students in winning admission to UC campuses has meant that those institutions are in many ways more diverse than much of American higher education. But the state's ban on affirmative action in public university admissions has depressed the admission of black and Latino students.

The proposal before the Board of Regents today would do the following:

  • End the requirement that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.
  • Narrow from the top 12.5 to the top 9 percent of high school graduates the percentage who will be guaranteed admission to the university system (although not necessarily to the campus of their choice).
  • Expand the definition of applicants eligible for a full admission review to include all who complete 11 of 15 required high school courses by the end of their junior year, and achieve a grade-point average of at least 3.0

The last shift is expected to greatly expand the pool of those entitled to a full admissions review, where personal qualities and other factors may help some win admission. Indeed those deemed eligible for a full review would go up in all racial and ethnic groups. But the gains in eligibility are not necessarily going to translate into gains in admissions for all groups -- or into gains that reflect the gains in those eligible for a full review.

Projected Impact of Admissions Changes on Different Racial and Ethnic Groups

Group Projected Increase in Eligibility for Review % of 2007-8 Admits Under Current Policy Estimates of Percentage of 2007-8 Class Admitted Under New Rules
Black +117% 4% 4-5%
Latino +86% 19% 19-22%
Asian +26% 36% 29-32%
White +77% 34% 41-44%

(Note: Numbers do not add to 100 because of "other" and students whose ethnicity is not known.)

***

There are various theories about why the numbers could change in these ways. The thinking behind dropping the SAT Subject Tests, according to the faculty panels that came up with the idea, is that they provide little information that helps admissions officers, but many black and Latino students appear less likely to take the exams, and have therefore been losing a shot at admission.

While some testing critics have welcomed the skepticism about the SAT Subject Tests, other educators have questioned whether the university is poised to drop the right test. A report out of the Center for Studies in Higher Education (part of the university's Berkeley campus) last year found that the subject tests were better at predicting academic success and more equitable in treatment of minority students than the main SAT, which the university is keeping.

Pan, of Chinese for Affirmative Action, cited another possible explanation for why the changes could exclude Asian Americans. They, on average, do very well on the SAT Subject Tests. Defenders of those tests say that, compared to the primary SAT, the subject examinations more closely relate to the high school curriculum. "We think they are much better tests than the aptitude tests, and they provide an incentive for schools to focus on course performance," Pan said.

He added that he believed students would do well on the subject tests only if they took rigorous courses in high school, and worked hard. "This leaves behind the SAT, which many companies use to make money on test prep," he said. "It's the wrong direction for UC."

A spokesman for the university system said that at a meeting today, President Yudof stressed that the estimates about impact on enrollment were just rough estimates, and shouldn't be seen as definitive. The university is much more confident about the figures about those who will be eligible for admission than those who would be admitted, the spokesman said.

Mary Croughan, an epidemiologist at the university's San Francisco campus and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, said that the apparent disadvantage for Asian Americans is actually a result of their success. Such a large share of Asian American high school students already are eligible to be considered and win admission that their numbers couldn't go up as much as those of other groups, she said.

"There is absolutely no desire to cut their numbers," she said. "What we want is a University of California more accessible to all students."

Asked about the charges of Asian groups that their students were following the rules, taking the right courses, demonstrating their course mastery and were now losing admissions slots, Croughan said that "parents know how to read the rules for admission and they do what they need to do." She predicted that Asian Americans would continue to do well. She also said it is hard to predict exactly what will happen under the new system because the new rules could change student behavior in high school.

Pan said that the real problem is that faculty at the university would like to restore affirmative action, but can't say that. Repealing Proposition 209, which barred the consideration of race in admissions, makes a lot of sense, Pan said. "But that's very difficult, and to some, unachievable. Because they can't politically say they want that, they are trying to accomplish something with this plan."

Croughan strongly disputed that. "This is not a work-around on 209 by any stretch of the imagination," she said. While adding that "there are significant reasons to repeal 209," this is a different issue.

Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, a private institution known for having a top-notch student body, said that when University of California officials presented information about the planned changes at meetings of high school guidance counselors, they focused on how these changes would expand opportunities for disadvantaged students, and did not discuss a possible impact on Asian enrollments.

He said that any Asian students at his high school who lose a spot because of these changes would end up doing well elsewhere, as these students would learn about other good options. He said, however, that he worried that plenty of Asian students at other high schools wouldn't have access to that kind of information.

Reider also noted that Asian American leaders have "a history of being suspicious of UC admissions," because of a sense of many that Asian applicants are held to a higher standard. Reider doesn't think anti-Asian feeling is at play in these changes. "The intention is to broaden black and Latino eligibility," he said. As for the white increases and Asian decreases, he added, "that is what in the military they call collateral damage."

 

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