Is 'Holistic' Admissions a Cover for Helping Black Applicants?

September 2, 2008

In 2006, the University of California at Los Angeles faced intense criticism when only 2 percent of the students admitted for the freshman class were black. For a decade at that point, UCLA had been operating under a ban on considering race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, but the numbers for black students had not previously been so low. Following that admissions season, UCLA revamped its system to one based on "holistic admissions," with more emphasis on considering the entirety of the candidate and slightly less on grades and test scores. The idea was to take an overall look at an applicant, not to use a formula.

The new system led to a rebound for black enrollments, but now UCLA is facing a different kind of criticism. A professor on the faculty oversight committee for admissions resigned last week, saying that considerable evidence exists that UCLA is using its new admissions system as a way to favor black applicants in violation of California law.

The professor -- Tim Groseclose -- believes that students are indicating their race in their application essays and that UCLA is using that information improperly. Further, he charges that the university is refusing to release data that might prove or disprove his theory. UCLA officials say that in fact they are following the law and are taking steps to investigate Groseclose's concerns.

Groseclose, a professor of political science, went public with his concerns Thursday night after spending months skirmishing on UCLA's Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations With Schools. In an 89-page report, which he posted online, Groseclose details how he came to have concerns about the UCLA process and how those concerns grew when the university would not provide him with documents he requested as a member of the committee.

Notably, Groseclose says he is a supporter of affirmative action and of admissions policies to support enhanced diversity. He would back an explicit preference for groups that suffered past discrimination, he writes, although only if practiced openly and consistent with state law. He also endorses the idea of UCLA devoting more undergraduate slots to transfer students -- a group that is more diverse than those who enroll as freshmen.

What Groseclose is skeptical about, however, is the claim that holistic admissions is fair. "A growing body of evidence strongly suggests that UCLA is cheating on admissions. Specifically, applicants often reveal their own race on the essay part of their application," and then to favor some groups over others, he writes. He goes on to say that the system seems primarily to favor black applicants, whose probability of being admitted increased to 16.5 percent from 11.5 percent the year that holistic admissions was adopted.

One reason the system needs scrutiny, he writes, is that the policy appears to be hurting non-black minority applicants. The probability of Native American students being admitted fell to 17.4 percent from 18.6 percent, and the probability of Latino applicants being admitted fell to 16.8 percent from 18.3 percent. The decline was particularly steep for applicants from Vietnamese families, whose probability of being admitted fall to 21.4 percent from 28.6 percent. Groseclose writes that this decline was particularly significant because -- among UCLA applicants -- the parents of Vietnamese applicants on average have lower incomes and are less likely to have attended college than are the parents of black applicants.

Groseclose also questions whether the pressure being put on UCLA and admissions officers in particular was so great that they felt they had no choice but to find a way to get more black applicants admitted. He cites an article on admissions in the UCLA faculty and staff newsletter that said: "A number of regents feel so strongly about issues of access that they 'are threatening to fire chancellors if we don't increase diversity,' [then] UC Provost Wyatt (Rory) Hume told faculty leaders at the teleconference."

To examine his hypothesis, Groseclose asked the admissions office for 1,000 applications files -- 500 randomly selected from the first year of holistic admissions and 500 from the prior year, with names redacted. UCLA officials cited a number of reasons for denying this request, raising privacy concerns, and questioning whether it was too early to do a study. Several other members of the admissions committee released letters (included in Groseclose's report) calling his requests for information appropriate and saying that he was unfairly rebuffed by the university. Other committee members, however, opposed his request and backed a plan -- now going forward -- for an "independent" review of applications.

Groseclose says that these actions played a major role in his decision to quit the committee. He writes that the faculty role in admissions isn't real when those charged with oversight of admissions can't check out evidence of possible problems. "There is considerable evidence that high-ranking administrators and a controlling block of my committee are engaged in a cover-up -- they are preventing me and others from obtaining these data so that the above malfeasances will not be discovered," he writes.

UCLA issued a statement Friday that defended its admissions policies and the way it is investigating the concerns raised by Groseclose.

"UCLA's admissions policies and practices were developed to scrupulously adhere to state law and University of California regulations. The campus remains committed to the highest ethical standards and to openness and transparency in establishing and maintaining admissions policies in compliance with applicable laws and regulations," the statement says.

Specifically, it notes that the 55,000 applications it receives are handled by 160 trained readers, with two readers reviewing each application, with a senior reader added to the process if the two readers' scores are inconsistent.

The statement adds that "to ensure fairness," the university was proceeding with an independent review of admissions practices, and that the review would include the issues raised by Groseclose. The statement also says: "It is disappointing that Professor Groseclose has decided not to work with staff to arrive at a solution.

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