Under this plan of "comprehensive review," an applicant's chances can rise if he or she has overcome a physical handicap, needed to work after school, was fired or "downsized" at work, lives in a single-parent or low-income home, or comes from a family in which neither parent went to high school. "Unusual family disruption" is a plus, too. So are any "unusual medical/emotional problems" of the student applying.
This means that students are rewarded for their parents' failures and for their own psychological problems as well. If dad walks out on mom or beats her up, or if you have a few suicide tries on your record, you might improve your chances of leaping over more academically qualified candidates who are short on family turmoil.
It goes without saying that any wildly irrational scheme installed at an American university is very likely a "diversity" tactic, undertaken to evade laws or court rulings against quotas. The law up for evasion here is Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996. It forbids any racial and ethnic preferences in the public sector, including admissions to the state's public colleges and universities. The University of California's "comprehensive review" plan contains a pious line saying that it must not be used to promote racial preferences (i.e., its framers wouldn't dream of disobeying the law). But moderately alert observers understand that it is ready-made to reduce the numbers of Asians and whites, and to increase the number of blacks and Latinos.
"Diversity" now functions like a militant religion on the campuses. Some colleges force professors to sign diversity loyalty oaths, promising to introduce the faith into their courses, even ones on math and science. Lani Guinier suggests that every college student be required to write an essay on diversity. And it is generally understood that anyone wishing to be president of a major university must be ready to promote diversity preferences despite what the law and the courts might say.
A year ago, Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, threatened to scrap the SAT 1 test as a requirement for UC admission. SAT 1, an aptitude test long considered the most useful objective standard in college admissions, has been under heavy assault by the diversity lobby as an unfair obstacle to minorities. If SAT 1 is toppled in California, it may well start to decline across the country.
But opponents of quotas and preferences seem more worried about plans like "comprehensive review," which give almost unlimited latitude to admissions officers chafing under the legal restrictions against preferences.
The most blatant of the racial admissions policies is the University of Michigan's, which gives 20 additional points on a 150-point scale to applicants from "underrepresented" groups, compared with just 3 points for an outstanding essay and only 12 points for a perfect SAT score. That plan, the last of the explicitly racial undergraduate programs, was upheld in federal court but is now under appeal. In the California plan, the diversity people are ducking back behind the curtain, promising that no preferences will be made, but providing conditions and deniability that make preferences likely.
The diversity lobby normally argues for representation at colleges -- every racial and ethnic group should have the same proportion of slots on campus as it does in the general population, regardless of which students did what in high school. "Comprehensive review" introduces a new standard: college admission as compensation or reward for having a troubled life.
Two strains of cultural-left thinking are coming together here: the quota culture and the victim culture. Grit and persistence under duress are qualities colleges can legitimately seek. But there is no doubt that victim status is about to become a valuable coin of the realm at the University of California. Single parenthood, which the cultural left usually insists is just as good as double parenthood, is listed as an asset in the admissions process.
The policy is implicitly condescending as well: It tries to usher in more blacks and Latinos by associating them with various dysfunctions. In looking for sociological indicators of race while explicitly not mentioning race, the diversity lobby hopes to be outwit the voters and the courts without getting caught. This is the work of elites disdainful of the values of the middle and working classes. It is all a shoddy and anti-democratic effort by people who don't think that the law applies to them.