Last fall, with a GPA above 4.0, an SAT of 1300 and a stint as a varsity golf player and student mentor, Jack Graham applied to the University of California campuses of Berkeley, San Diego and Santa Barbara.
He was turned down by all three.
Graham missed getting in by a few hundred points at UC San Diego, where under UC’s new “comprehensive review” policies students can get up to 500 points for personal disadvantages.
“If my parents would have been divorced I would have gotten in,” Graham says wryly.
UC officials say it’s not that simple. A student claiming disadvantage due to divorce would have to make a convincing case that it created a specific hardship, say a sudden loss of income. Getting the full 500 points would take a life-altering event, such as being forced into foster care. Meanwhile, academic criteria accounts for more than 75 percent of San Diego’s evaluation system.
But affirmative action critics are taking aim at the new system, saying it has turned admissions into a sob-story sweepstakes that most benefits blacks and Hispanics.
“On the face of it, there’s a lot of unfairness in this system,” said Harold Johnson of the Pacific Legal Foundation. The foundation is exploring whether comprehensive review flouts a California law banning race-based admissions at public schools.
Since race-blind admissions went into effect, enrollment of blacks and Hispanics tumbled, then rebounded. But there has been a reshuffling, with more blacks and Hispanics going to lesser-known campuses such as UC-Riverside and fewer going to Berkeley and UCLA.
So far, there’s little evidence that the new comprehensive review policies, passed last November, benefit any one group. This fall, in the first year of comprehensive review, blacks, Hispanics and American Indians made up 19.1 percent of freshman admissions. That was the first time the number surpassed the 18.8 percent set in 1997 — the last year of affirmative action. The groups together represent 39.3 percent of California’s population, according to Census 2000.
However, the number of these “underrepresented minorities” has been increasing ever since the big drop in 1998 — last year the pool was 18.6 percent — and the personal disadvantages scorecard is but one of many factors influencing admissions numbers systemwide.
UC officials say it appears the incoming class is as academically strong as in previous years and that admissions directors did not find a marked increase in students pleading hardship.
They describe comprehensive review as a better and closer method of evaluation, looking at not just what a student accomplished but how hard he or she had to work to do it.
“It was an opportunity for us to look at the whole student’s record, consider all of the student’s attributes while maintaining primary emphasis on the academic profile of the student,” said Dennis Galligani, UC associate vice president for student academic affairs.
Take the case of Vanessa Vidal, who was accepted to Berkeley this fall. Vidal has an overall grade point average of better than 4.0, was editor of her school newspaper, had tutored other students in a mentoring program and had an SAT score of 1150.
Neither of her parents has a college degree and her mother is not fluent in English. She attended a high school of 4,700 students, most of whom are low-income.
UC officials warn that individual cases such as those of Vidal and Graham cannot and should not be compared in a judgment-by-anecdote; there are too many factors involved in admissions. For instance, UC has been placing less emphasis on SAT scores for some time, citing studies showing the test is a poor predictor for how well a student will do in college.
Vidal sees comprehensive review as a way for admissions officials to see her in context.
“It is harder for us to get a better education,” said Vidal. She said she didn’t try to spin a hard-luck tale to admissions officials, and simply stated the facts about having to figure out homework assignments on her own as well as help her younger siblings with their work.
Vidal’s school, South Gate High School near Los Angeles is one where UC has an outreach program, a system of recruitment and mentoring that replaced the old affirmative action programs.
Graham, who ultimately got accepted into UC Santa Barbara on appeal, went to one of the best high schools in the state, where there was no such program.
His mother, UC Irvine professor Mary Gilly says she supports affirmative action, but not “this idea of tweaking and doing a formula and playing games to work out the numbers. He would have gotten more points had he gone to a bad high school ... you wonder what’s the point of trying to live in a good school district.”
UC critic David Benjamin, who runs an SAT prep company in Southern California, says UC is focusing outreach on schools that are predominantly Hispanic and black, bypassing poor whites and Asians and families that “are poor but their parents ... sacrifice everything to send their kids to a better high school. Their kids are not even being looked at.”
Applicants get extra points for being in college prep programs — UC’s and others. UC officials say they target poorly performing high schools, regardless of race. The truth is, many of these schools are predominantly Hispanic and black.
Each campus has a different formula for what constitutes hardship and how much it counts.
UCLA considers a number of disadvantages including recovering from a life-threatening illness, accident or a shooting.
At Berkeley, admissions officers don’t assign points — readers come up with an overall total for each applicant based on all the information in the file.
At UC Davis, students can earn up to 250 points for perseverance, which can include difficulties associated with family disruptions, poverty, health and dysfunctional environments. However, perseverance can only account for 2 percent of the maximum point total; academics account for 73 percent.
Applications are read by at least two people and if they’re more than slightly off, a third person is called in.
But critics say there’s nothing to stop students from inventing difficult pasts.
UC is working on a verification system, although Galligani said they’ve been checking up on academic claims for years and “what we find is that students do not exaggerate.”
South Gate counselor Shawna Parish-Valbuena says the challenges her students face are real.
She gives college pep talks and “I’m looking at this crowd of students out there who think I’m talking to somebody else. These kids, they don’t have parents at home who can help them with homework. For the most part, parents are just trying to survive, they’re trying to put food on the table.”
Students who pass UC-required courses, take the tests and get into a campus, will be successful, Parish-Valbuena said.