California Legislature Seeks to Boost Minority UC Admissions Through Cheating

Earlier this month, the California Legislature passed SB 185. If signed by Governor Brown, the bill would add a section to California Education Code Section 66205 allowing the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) to consider certain factors in admissions, “so long as no preference is given.”

UC Comprehensive Review

Currently, the UC considers 14 academic and personal factors in its admissions process. Known as the comprehensive review, this process ranks students based on the following factors:

  • GPA in A-G courses.
  • ACT or SAT scores.
  • Electives.
  • Honors and AP courses.
  • Class rank.
  • Senior-year program.
  • “Quality of their academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in their high school.”
  • Outstanding academic performance.
  • Outstanding work in special projects.
  • “Recent, marked improvement in academic performance.”
  • Special talents, skills, or leadership experience.
  • Completion of special projects.
  • “Academic accomplishments in light of a student’s life experiences and special circumstances.”
  • Location of a student’s secondary school and residence.

SB 185 Factors

Under SB 185, when “attempting to obtain educational benefit through the recruitment of a multifactored, diverse student body,” the UC may consider these additional factors:

  • race,
  • gender,
  • ethnicity,
  • national origin,
  • geographic origin, and
  • household income.

Legislative Intent

According to the Senate Rules Committee Bill Analysis, Senator Ed Hernandez authored the bill because of his concern that “since the passage of Proposition 209, the proportion of underrepresented students eligible for UC and CSU has not kept pace with the proportion of the high school graduating class they now represent. According to the author’s office, this bill addresses this significant drop in the percentage of enrolled minority students at both UC and CSU, which was an unintended consequence of the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.”

Underrepresentation is Not the Problem

First, underrepresentation is the wrong construct since it presupposes that a model racial distribution exists. Additionally, while underrepresentation sounds neutral, it is in fact a dishonest term because it only focuses on underrepresentation by certain demographic groups and not others.

The chart below from the UC Accountability Sub-Report on Diversity illustrates the issue.

African-Americans constitute between 7-8 percent of California public high school graduates, 3.5 percent of the UC eligible California public high school graduates, and 3.7 percent of the UC freshmen from California public high schools.

Chicano/Latino students constitute 37 percent of California public high school graduates, 19.2 percent of UC eligible California public high school graduates, and 18.6 percent of the UC freshmen from California public high schools.

Based on the percentage of UC eligible California public high school graduates, African-Americans and Chicano/Latino students are not underrepresented at all among UC freshman. Their enrollment rate roughly corresponds to their eligibility rate. The only demographic group that is underrepresented is white students, which constitute 39.9 percent of California public high school graduates, 43.9 percent of UC eligible California public high school graduates, but only 35.6 percent of the UC freshmen from California public high schools.

So, why are white students not enrolling at the University of California at a rate commensurate with their portion of the relevant population? Is the UC admissions office discriminating against white students? This table offers an interesting revelation:

2003 2006 2009
Underrepresented Minorities
Applicants 15,883 18,408 25,768
Admits 11,757 74.02% 14,250 77.41% 18,896 73.33%
Enrollees 5,737 48.80% 6,938 48.69% 8,259 43.71%
Asian Americans
Applicants 23,263 26,712 29,517
Admits 19,478 83.73% 23,342 87.38% 25,004 84.71%
Enrollees 12,405 63.69% 15,098 64.68% 14,080 56.31%
Applicants 29,334 29,769 32,159
Admits 24,368 83.07% 24,940 83.78% 26,339 81.90%
Enrollees 11,426 46.89% 11,668 46.78% 10,470 39.75%

The underrepresentation of white students is not an admissions problem. Instead, whites who are admitted to the UC system are enrolling at a declining rate. Indeed, the rate of white enrollment falls below even that of the underrepresented minority population (i.e, American Indians, African Americans and Chicanos/Latinos). In 2009, 39.75 percent of white students admitted as freshmen enrolled in the UC system versus 43.7 percent for underrepresented minority students. So, we should not view underrepresentation as a proxy for illegal discrimination, past or present.

Indeed, underrepresentation may just mean that certain populations have found better educational opportunities outside the UC system. For example, African Americans enroll at in-state and out-of-state private colleges at a higher rate than the rest of the population. This should not be surprising in light of the higher fees and lower rates of financial aid noted by the University Committee on Affirmative Action and Diversity.

Percent of Each Ethnic Group Choosing Particular School Type,
Fall 2001 Admitted Freshman Applicants

Overall African
Asian Chicano Latino White Other
UC 71% 60% 67% 81% 66% 66% 66% 72%
CSU 7% 7% 8% 4% 11% 9% 9% 7%
CCC 2% 1% 2% 3% 4% 4% 2% 2%
CA Private 8% 15% 6% 5% 12% 11% 8% 7%
Out-of-State Public 2% 3% 5% 1% 2% 2% 4% 3%
Out-of-State Private 7% 13% 10% 5% 4% 7% 10% 7%
Other / Unknown 2% 1% 2% 1% 1% 1% 1% 2%

Source: Recommendations and Observations, University of California Undergraduate Work Team of the Study Group on University Diversity, September 2007.

The Only Honest Solution is Improving Academic Preparation

The Recommendations and Observations, dated September 2007, from the University of California Undergraduate Work Team of the Study Group on University Diversity described the scope of the problem as follows:

The Study Group has observed that unequal opportunities characterize the educational landscape in California. These educational disparities, which predate Proposition 209, are severe, large and extensive, and associated with racial/ethnic and socioeconomic factors. These disparities are reflected in the “a-g” completion rates, availability of UC-approved advanced coursework in California public high schools, the availability of qualified teachers and access to school resources, including: safe and properly equipped school facilities, textbooks (both quality and quantity), and counselors and other sources of college- preparation information and guidance. The will and the resources to remedy educational inequality have been insufficient for remedying the disparities both prior to and since Proposition 209.

While Mr. Hernandez did raise the problem of low UC eligibility rates of African American and Chicano/Latino high school graduates, he offered no solution that targeted the structural issues affecting these students. Instead, the senator attempted to navigate between the confines of the Proposition 209 and Grutter v. Bollinger, 529 U.S. 306 (2003), by crafting a nonsensical racial consideration permitted under Grutter, but which did not constitute a racial preference prohibited under Proposition 209.

What the senator ignored in Grutter was the court’s admonition: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the the interest [in obtaining the educational benefits that flows from a diverse student body] approved today.” Since the court’s deadline will pass in 17 years, the state would be well-served by fixing the problem at hand instead engaging in some chicanery to boost African American and Chicano/Latino enrollment numbers.

Boosting a student’s admission ranking through a racial consideration without a corresponding improvement in academic preparedness is akin to raising student test scores by having educators erasing and changing wrong answers on standardized tests. In both instances, legislators and teachers have lost their compass. The focus should always be on educating the students and preparing them for college, not the blind pursuit of some numerical talisman.

While cheating may increase test scores, it does not improve academic preparedness. Likewise, granting a racial consideration does not improve A-G completion rates, increase the availability of UC-approved advanced coursework in California public high schools, or provide more qualified teachers, resources and counselors for our high school students. In the classroom, there is no shortcut for hard work. Mr. Hernandez should understand that educating the next generation of Californians requires a joint effort from both parents and educators. A cosmetic solution that does not improve academic opportunities and performance cheats all students who are not being adequately prepared by our current educational system.