Admissions and omissions

Posted: Nov 26, 2001 12:00 AM
The University of California once again is fiddling with its admissions policies. UC used to admit 50 percent to 75 percent of students based on academic scores alone, then admit the rest of students based on scores and personal factors. The new policy, called "comprehensive review" and approved by regents this month, allows universities to admit all students based on academic and personal information, such as how students have dealt with adversity and the content of their application essays. UC spokesman Brad Hayward explained, "We believe it makes more sense to evaluate all students on the same criteria." The old system, he added, entailed "closing one eye to look at one group of students, then opening it to look at the rest of the students" My fear is that the new policy is one that uses both eyes, but they are peering through bad glasses. As usual, the university wants the public to know that the new policy doesn't change admissions all that much. (Which makes you wonder why regents bothered to vote for a change in the middle of the application process.) To qualify for UC, students still will have to score in their own schools' top 4 percent, or the top 12.5 percent statewide; the new policy would affect which campuses admit which students. Calvin Moore of the UC Berkeley faculty admissions committee figures that 96 percent of Berkeley applicants accepted under the old system would get in under the new one. Who are those 4 percent who won't get in? UCLA assistant vice chancellor Tom Lifka told the Los Angeles Times, "Some of the students who are in the very top academically, if they have low personal achievement scores, are not going to get in." Which sounds like dumbing down to me. It makes you wonder: If academics don't value academics, who will? Or as dissenting UC Regent Sue Johnson told the Daily Californian: "I really believe that by not having measurable objective criteria, (we) step away from academic rigor. Comprehensive review gives rise to doubt and confusion. It's overly ambiguous." No, no, UC says. The new system will allow UC to admit more students with drive and leadership ability. By looking at the students' personal statements and other information -- UC Chancellor Richard Atkinson said he wants admissions to be more "holistic" -- UC can find more diamonds in the rough. (The new policy also would make it harder for students from top high schools to get in if a university feels the student didn't challenge himself sufficiently.) Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at S.F. University High School, has a more positive than negative take on the new policy. Yet, he noted, that the problem with admitting students by relying more heavily on essays is that, from what he hears from UC staffers, "They're not interested in the quality of writing." Indeed, a UC missive tells students, "Overall, correct grammar, spelling and sentence construction can contribute to a good personal statement, though we do not evaluate essays on those specific factors." It's one thing to overlook split predicates, but UC basically has announced that California's top schools will forgive an ungrammatical essay. A Berkeley professor told me essays are bad indicators because there's no way to know who really wrote them -- Moore himself said he expects adults to vet those essays -- and admissions officers can't tell what biographical information is true, exaggerated or even fabricated. There's also a real danger that personal essays could turn into "Queen for a Day," that old TV show on which women competed as to whose hardships most merited a coveted prize. To paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy, you could say accepting students based on SAT scores and GPAs is the worst way to cull a student body, except it's better than all the others. Private universities have the staff to look at references and other data, but UC has to make faster judgments. The choice, then, is objective data or, as one wag put it, "squishy judgments made by people who are committed to a particular view of the university as a political instrument." Given that choice, I trust the numbers more.