How to make an un-level playing field more un-level

Larry Elder's picture

Move over, Martin Luther King Jr., and your desire for a colorblind society. The University of California system prefers a color-coordinated one.

UC’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) wants to change the admission rules to their 10 schools, including lowering the minimum high school GPA to 2.8 and removing the requirement of two SAT Subject Tests.

Current policy makes the top 12.5 percent of each senior class — based on a minimum 3.0 GPA, their scores on either the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT with Writing, and their scores on two SAT Subject Tests — eligible for admission to a UC school.

But, a large percentage of poor, black and Hispanic students, according to BOARS, never take the SAT Subject Tests, shutting them out from eligibility. Lowering the GPA and dropping the requirement for two SAT Subject Tests increases the number of students eligible for admission, giving the universities a larger, more minority-laden pool from which to choose.

Yet this proposed policy adversely affects students, many of them Asian American students (formerly known as minorities). And doing away with the SAT Subject Tests — where students pick their two best subjects from a variety of tests in English, history, mathematics, science and language — inflicts the most damage.

Used since 1926, with revisions over the decades, SATs try to make sense out of different grades, given by different teachers, in different classes, in different schools. How do we know the A given by Mr. Anderson in Texas equals the A given in another class by Mrs. Tyler in New Hampshire? Answer: The SAT. As for the SAT Subject Tests (called Achievement Tests until 1994, and SAT IIs until 2005), each subject has a one-hour test, and a student can take up to three Subject Tests in one day.

Critics of the SAT argue that grades remain the best predictor of success in college. Agreed, provided we take into consideration grade inflation or watered-down standards — precisely why most colleges, despite no government mandate, still require that applicants take the SAT.

Admitting students with lowered standards hurts the very kids that race-coordinators claim to protect. In a groundbreaking study UCLA Professor Richard Sander — a longtime affirmative action advocate — found that law school minority students admitted with lower criteria suffered from this “academic mismatch.”

After the first year of law school, 51 percent of black students were likely to be in the bottom tenth of their class, compared with 5 percent of whites. These mismatched students were twice as likely to drop out or fail the bar on their first try. Sander concluded that if schools and students were better matched, we’d have many more black lawyers.

A student entering school without preferences stands a far greater chance of competing and succeeding. Why? Preferences place a student on a much faster track. A less-competitive track provides the less-prepared student time to grasp the material, making on-time graduation more likely.

Contrary to the expectations of critics, in the years following California’s Proposition 209 — which outlawed the use of race as a factor in university admissions — the numbers of blacks and Hispanics in the UC system remained the same. Fewer blacks and Hispanics attended the most competitive campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley, but more attended UC Riverside or UC Irvine.

One more point. Does attendance at an elite school determine one’s success? Economist Robert J. Samuelson writes, “Going to Harvard or Duke won’t automatically produce a better job and higher pay. Graduates of these schools generally do well. But they do well because they’re talented. Had they chosen colleges with lesser nameplates, they would (on average) have done just as well.”

Researchers at Princeton and at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation examined the earnings of students admitted into elite schools like Yale. They compared the salary histories of those students admitted and attended, against those admitted but who chose to attend a less prestigious school. Samuelson explains: “Suppose that Princeton and Podunk accept you and me; but you go to Princeton and I go to Podunk. On average, we will still make the same.” The result held for blacks and whites.

The elite grads initially received more lucrative jobs, but over time, ability won out. Ability means not just scholastic aptitude, but real world qualities that contribute to success: perseverance, responsibility, humor, leadership skills and optimism.

Broadening the admissions eligibility pool allows UC to use subjective criteria such as overcoming “hardship” or “disadvantage.” What about a middle class student from a divorced family? Is that student more “disadvantaged” than a kid coming from a lower class, but with a nuclear, intact family?

Answering these questions requires almost divine judgment, something few mortals possess. Ultimately, it comes down to whether taxpayers deserve admissions standards that allow students to apply on as equal footing as possible. Lowering standards makes the process more, not less, unfair.

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