The University of California at Los Angeles uses a "holistic" approach to undergraduate admissions. Each applicant is reviewed not only for test scores and grades, but for low socioeconomic status, a disadvantaged background and evidence of the ability to overcome challenges (among other qualities). Holistic admissions (used by many leading colleges and universities, some of which also consider a candidate's race and ethnicity) is designed to evaluate each applicant as more than just a set of numbers.
Proponents of holistic admissions say that it evens the playing field for those who didn't go to the best high schools or couldn't afford enriching summer travel or SAT tutors. And because holistic admissions avoids automatic cutoff or admission scores for students from any group, proponents hope it can help diversify student bodies without running afoul of court rulings or attracting lawsuits.
If a debate over the last week at UCLA is any indication, however, holistic admissions may not protect campuses from intense controversy over just what they can do to admit members of underrepresented minority groups.
The current debate was sparked by a report  issued last week by a law professor at UCLA who provided what he said was evidence that UCLA was interpreting holistic admissions in ways that resulted in the admission of black students with significantly lower scores (not just based on grades and test scores, but on the holistic factors as well) than those of students in other groups.
The professor says this shows that race is being considered at UCLA, despite protestations to the contrary. The report (and coverage and commentary about it in the student newspaper) infuriated minority student leaders at UCLA (not to mention admissions officials). The administrators reacted, among other reasons, because they are in effect being accused of violating the law. And minority students said that the suggestion was that they didn't deserve to be at UCLA -- a suggestion that is particularly distressing to black students because their numbers have been so low since the state barred its public universities from considering race and ethnicity in admissions.
One of the slogans used at a rally Monday reflected a sense that any critical mass of black students will be viewed with suspicion by critics of affirmative action. The slogan: "How close to zero do they want us to get?"
Data and Comparisons
Richard Sander, the law professor who has been a prominent critic of affirmative action, said in an interview Tuesday that he attended the rally, and was not impressed. "Some fairly cynical leaders saw an opportunity to create a cause ... and they are milking it to the full. There was no rational discussion. There was no identification of any mistakes in my report, and no concern about what it would mean if the analysis were correct."
Sander maintains in fact that many black and Latino students are doing better than ever before academically at UCLA, and that full honesty about admissions might result in fewer minority admits, but more success for those who enroll.
Sander obtained multiple years of detailed admissions data from UCLA (through an open records request) and analyzed patterns in the admission of different groups. Under holistic admissions, students receive a score based on all of their admissions criteria, and most applicants are admitted or rejected based on that review. A small number of applicants, however, receive a "supplemental" review in which their files get another read. Sander said that his analysis found that the holistic criteria are being applied fairly among all applicants. While his report says that some of the best academic candidates lose out to those who have qualities favored in holistic review, the process is consistent with what UCLA has said it would do in admissions.
Among the reasons he believes that UCLA is considering race in admissions is his finding that -- comparing candidates from different groups who did poorly on holistic review -- black candidates have a much better shot of getting in, even after disadvantages are factored in, and that this is taking place in the supplemental reviews.
Overall, among those with a 2.75 rating over all on holistic review (1 being the best possible score and 5 the worst), 33 percent of black applicants are admitted, while only 11 percent of white applicants are. Of those with a 3.5 rating, 15 percent of black applicants are admitted while 3 percent of white applicants are. The Latino admit rates are less than those for black applicants with the same admissions profile.
Sander said that the relative success of black applicants who have received poor ratings through holistic admissions can be explained only by their receiving an extra boost. He adds as evidence that black applicants receive more of a boost (despite low holistic ratings) than do Latino applicants. And he believes that these boosts have a meaningful impact on who is admitted.
California banned the consideration of race in 1996, and UCLA started holistic reviews after black enrollment levels went as low as 2 percent of the student body. Only 3.8 percent of the UCLA freshman admits this fall were black and their numbers are so small (348) that the scores of black applicants Sander says are being admitted despite low holistic reviews could make up a real share of the total. Sander estimates that these latter stage reviews are increasing black enrollment by about a third.
While Sander has been harshly criticized by UCLA administrators and students, he notes that his findings aren't that different from a report  commissioned by UCLA about its admissions system, and released by the university (with its endorsement) this year. That report came to the conclusion that the system was working as intended, but that black applicants are gaining in the reviews that take place after the initial round.
"In both final and supplemental review, African-American applicants receive somewhat more favorable and North Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian/Pakistani American) applicants receive somewhat less favorable holistic read scores than applicants in other ethnic identity groups who are otherwise similar in academic qualifications, personal characteristics, and measured challenges and hardships," says that report, prepared by Robert Mare, a sociology professor. Mare said he didn't have time for an interview on Tuesday.
At the end of his report, he writes that the "disparities" he found in the later stages of the admissions process "favor some groups and disfavor others." But he declined to weigh in on those disparities, saying that the question is a "policy issue, not a scientific one."
The overall tone of the Mare report is much more sympathetic to the university and its diversity goals, while the tone of Sander's report is quite different. In the interview, Sander said that his study shows that holistic review isn't really holistic. "Any argument that the holistic score needs to be further adjusted [in supplemental review] means the holistic system is flawed," he said.
Student groups are accusing Sander of questioning the right of minority students to be at UCLA.
"We want the UCLA campus to recognize that this is not an isolated event and many like these, in the past, have stirred feelings of anxiety for many students of color on campus who have been consistently told that their entrance into the university is a mistake or some sort of handout," said a statement on the Facebook page Students of Color and our place at UCLA is, once again, UNDER ATTACK!  "Even more alarming is that we are receiving these messages from members of UCLA faculty and staff.... Sander’s comments and poor research clearly represents the ideology that exists among a number of UCLA faculty and staff and that is the belief that students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and who are non-traditional are taking the spots from others."
Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA's associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, said in an interview Tuesday that she had not yet been able to review all of Sander's statistics, and so could not confirm their accuracy. But she said she was bothered by Sander releasing the report without attention to its impact on students.
"The way in which Professor Sander went about releasing this, and the hurtful and unequivocal attacks he has made on a body of work that has involved faculty at every level of this institution -- that's very unfortunate," she said. Sander should have found "appropriate structure and venues" to talk about his concerns, she said, rather than issuing his report.
Copeland-Morgan said that, from what she has seen of Sander's report, she believes that he places too much emphasis on numbers, and sees the admissions process as being about various numbers alone. "The work we do is about students and their lives. It is not about numbers," she said. She said she was proud of the way students organized Monday's rally.
She said that there is nothing in UCLA's policies that limits the consideration of holistic factors to the first stage of review. When applicants are considered in supplemental reviews, she said, it is totally appropriate to again consider whether those students had faced particular hardships or had overcome challenges and demonstrated perseverance. "If a rural kid takes two buses to pursue his curiosity about multivariable calculus and has to go to a community college to do that, that says a lot about a student," Copeland-Morgan said. And that should be considered not just at initial review, but in supplemental reviews.
The flaw in Sander's thinking, she said, is that "he believes any discrepancy must mean you are considering race." That's wrong, she said, because "mathematical models can't be used to fully evaluate students' credentials." Disadvantage "is considered at every stage of the admissions process," she said, so it's not surprising that some disadvantaged students are admitted through the supplemental part of the process.
She also said it was unfair for Sander to question why some black and Latino students are admitted with lower test scores and grades that those of other students. "What he is also missing is that there are reasons these students receive a lower holistic rating that have to do with the educational opportunities they were provided [compared to] their peers from better resourced schools, so holistic review is making sure we have an equitable way of evaluating the differences in opportunities that students have."
Added Copeland-Morgan: "Our belief is that with the power of holistic review, we are able to capture in a reading process things you cannot capture with numbers."