Ever since California voters banned racial preferences in
college admissions to state schools in 1996, university administrators have
been trying to come up with a way to boost their minority admissions. Now,
University of California administrators think they've found a solution: Give
extra points to students who've survived some special hardship. The idea is
that black and Hispanic applicants will be more likely to have overcome
poverty, discrimination, family breakdown, crime-infested neighborhoods,
overcrowding and a host of other barriers to academic success. If the
university gives them extra points for having beat the odds, it will help
make up for lower average grades and test scores among black and Hispanic
In principle, there's nothing wrong with a school considering
hardship in its admissions decisions, providing the policy really is race
neutral. If a student has truly overcome real adversity, it says something
about his character and determination that can be an important indicator of
future success, so long as he applies these same qualities to his school
work. I've seen firsthand examples of students who did just that.
In the early 1990s, I was chairman of the National Commission on
Migrant Education and traveled the country visiting with students whose
parents were migrant farm workers. I was always impressed with how hard
these kids worked to prevail, despite daunting circumstances. Many of them
changed schools two or three times each year, lived in substandard housing,
often with several generations and multiple families under the same roof.
Yet they stayed in school and earned decent grades. I'm for giving the
benefit of the doubt to any student who's managed to thrive under such
But it's not clear the University of California's new admission
policy is aimed at students like these. Instead, the university seems to be
inviting all black and Hispanic students to cast themselves as victims of
misfortune, with the explicit purpose of beefing up black and Hispanic
enrollment. Even middle class and affluent blacks and Hispanics will search
for ways to make their lives appear difficult in the hopes of boosting their
admission odds. Meanwhile, some campuses seem to be applying double
standards when it comes to judging what constitutes hardship.
The Wall Street Journal reported recently that UCLA apparently
gave no special "hardship" consideration to one Korean student who helped
nurse his mother through a bout with breast cancer, working after school to
pay the family's rent, while admitting a Mexican American student who had a
nearly identical story but whose test scores were 390 points lower than the
Although the university refused to explain why it treated the
applicants differently, it appears race played some role. The school's
admissions figures bear this out. With "hardship" consideration now a formal
factor in admissions, the numbers of black and Hispanic students have jumped
dramatically for the incoming freshman class, with 9 percent more Hispanics
and 19 percent more blacks admitted to UCLA in the fall, and fewer whites
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm, has
asked the university for its admissions data to determine whether race is
really masquerading as "hardship" in the university's admissions decisions.
If so, it would violate the 1996 law that banned racial preferences.
Most of us admire the individual who overcomes great odds, pulls
himself up by his bootstraps and succeeds in the face of misfortune. But it
shouldn't matter what color the person's skin is.
A few years ago, the film "October Sky" celebrated the story of
a group of young West Virginia boys, the sons of coal miners, who built a
rocket in the 1950s and won a national science contest and then went on to
college, the first in their families to do so. They faced poverty and
prejudice, but overcame it. Should we ignore these boys' struggles and
achievements just because they were white? If the University of California
is really interested in rewarding character in its admissions policy, it
shouldn't treat hardship differently depending on the race of the applicant.