Come November, voters in several states will not only be picking the next president but deciding whether they want to end a system of racial preferences in public higher education and government hiring and contracting. In 2006, voters in Michigan struck down racial preferences, as did Californians and Washingtonians a decade earlier, and as many as five states will have that opportunity this year if proposed initiatives in those states qualify for the ballot. But a new move is afoot to try to circumvent the intent of those initiatives in higher education. Not surprisingly, the University of California is leading the effort, but it could spell trouble for higher education everywhere.
Most colleges currently require students seeking admission to meet academic standards based on high school grades and scores on standardized tests, such as the SAT. The University of California, arguably the best public higher education system in the country, now requires graduating seniors in California to earn a high school grade point average (GPA) of at least 3.0, to complete certain courses in high school and to take subject tests (referred to as the SAT II) as well as the more general SAT. Students who complete these requirements satisfactorily are considered eligible for admission to some of the campuses in the UC system, although admission to the top-tier campuses is far more selective.
High standards have served the UC system well. UC Berkeley and UCLA are among the best schools in the nation, public or private. But after California voters banned giving preference in admission to the schools on the basis of race or ethnicity, fewer blacks and Hispanics made the cut for Berkeley and UCLA, and ended up elsewhere in the system -- at Riverside, Davis or San Diego, for example. More blacks and Hispanics actually attend University of California system-wide today than before racial preferences were banned, but they go to a different mix of schools -- where their academic preparation puts them on par with their white and Asian peers.
Now a UC policy-making board is considering sweeping changes in the admissions process that threatens to lower standards for admission for all students in the hopes that it will boost admission of more blacks and Hispanics (Asians already account for about 40 percent of the students). This board proposes lowering the GPA required to 2.8 and dropping the requirement for students to take SAT II tests in at least two academic subjects, among other changes. The effect will be to lower standards -- and the ultimate aim is to erode support for any objective measures of academic achievement.
If adopted, this plan will have far-reaching impact. In the academic world, as California goes, so goes the nation. The diversity crowd has long sought to eliminate standardized testing as an important factor in college admissions because blacks and Hispanics, on average, do worse than whites and Asians on standardized tests. But the problem is standardized tests are the most objective way to measure students' academic qualifications against each other.
SAT scores are not intended to predict how well a person will do in life generally, but they do predict college grades. Students with low SAT scores usually struggle in college and many drop out, especially if they are put in situations where they are competing with higher-scoring students. One of the lessons of the ban on racial preferences is that black and Hispanic students are actually more likely to graduate now that they are attending campuses where their grades and test scores are the same as their peers.
The irony is that the diversity crowd pushing these changes may end up harming the very students they want to help. What good does it do to admit ill-prepared students who then don't graduate? The real problem for many black and Hispanic applicants is that their skills don't measure up -- but getting rid of the tests only sweeps the evidence under the rug.
Dumbing down requirements for admission to the nation's best higher education system helps no one. Worse, it may start a tidal wave to sweep away objective standards in college admissions -- and that would be a disaster for the country as well as higher education. The United States has the finest universities in the world. But if we begin to erode excellence by eliminating objective standards for admission, we'll pay for it by destroying the meritocratic system that has served us so well.