The Problem in UC Admissions
BY RICHARD MOLL
Last summer, I abandoned the East where I had spent 23 years in college admissions at Yale, Harvard, Bowdoin and Vassar — all private, all truly selective (and a bit pretentious about it) and all conservative, or so I thought.
After less than a year, my elitist, "conservative" Ivy college homes of the past now strike me as considerably more flexible, sensitive, imaginative and (I will risk saying) serious in reviewing candidates for admission than the quite selective University of California.
With a budget of nearly $1 billion this year, the university is assuming severe public responsibility. Its undergraduate admissions policies should, it follows, be responsible.
But in my view, the UC admissions policy is Neanderthal — adequate for some bygone era perhaps, but out-classed by both private and public colleges in many less progressive parts of our nation today.
In short, the UC admissions system is painfully superficial. It just could be that the emperor is wearing scanty clothes.
The requirements for admission to the UC system as an undergraduate are simple and stated upfront. A high school student must prepare by taking four years of English, one year of history; two years of math, one year of a laboratory science, two years of a foreign language and one advanced course in foreign language, math or natural science.
After that, admission is based strictly on numbers. The university looks at grades alone, test scores alone or a combination of grades and test scores.
If a California high school senior's grades for the 10th through 12th grades in the required subjects average 3.3 or better, he or she is in. Or if the student's SAT scores (combined math and verbal) total 1100 or higher, and the scores for three CEEB achievement tests (in English, math, foreign language or social studies) total 1650 or higher, admission is automatic.
If the grade point average or the test scores fall short of these automatic admit marks, there is an Eligibility Index which plays off grades against test scores on a sliding scale. With a grade point average of 2.85, for example, a student can win admission with SAT scores of 1440. With a grade point average of 3.06, the SAT scores can be as low as 950 and the student still will be admitted. In my opinion there are at least six evils inherent in this system, and our high school students are not being given a fair chance for admission to the state's top level of higher education.
1. Those Detested Tests: Yes, a uniform quantifier must be used, and the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Achievement Test battery fill the bill responsibly (as does the less-often used American Col-loge Test (ACT) battery). Despite charges of racial bias, these tests have a good track record in predicting college success (for rich and poor alike.)
But UC does not heed the warning of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service that the test not be allowed to stand-alone. At UC you can be admitted by test scores alone, no matter how rotten your high school record.
If the tests-alone policy is retained, it certainly could be made more fair, especially for the moderate tester. And California kids need a break here, since in the past decade the average SAT score in the state dropped 40 points in verbal (compared to an average drop nationally of 29 points) and 31 points in math (compared to a drop of 18 points nationally.)
The College Board people say that an SAT score cannot be read precisely, but must be considered as a "symbol" of performance within a 60-point range. But this is not so at UC, where a score is a score. If a student's scores don't add up to 1100, the test-only route to admission is closed.
2. The Easy-Way-Out Incentive: UC gives no greater weight in compiling a grade point average to advanced courses than to any other course. To choose advanced chemistry over regular chemistry or honors English over Basic English may denote love of learning, but it is probably a mistake if admission to UC is the goal. An "A" grade in general biology means as much as an "A" in college biology. So why take the college prep course when admission is available by another, less strenuous and probably safer route?
3. An "A" Is An "A" Is An "A.' We all know it is more difficult to get an "A" at Lowell High School in San Francisco or at Beverly Hills High School or at the private Harvard School than at most of the other secondary schools in this state. The level of competition varies enormously from secondary school to secondary school, and so does the grading curve. But UC is blind to the differences. An "A" from one school is the same as an "A" from any other. The kids in schools where it is relatively easy to attain a high grade point average are therefore favored by UC. A lot.
4. The Oh-Let-Them-Enjoy-School Web:
We Californians simply don't require enough substantial learning at the secondary school level. It may be no fun to learn how adjectives differ from adverbs, or how to conjugate verbs, but it is surely less fun not to know how to write or speak well later.
The elitist private colleges with which UC compares itself are very fussy about courseload, courseload, courseload. Stanford requires that a student take in grades 10 through 12 three years of English, three years of math, two or more years of laboratory science, three years of one foreign language, and electives in art and music.
UC's requirements, as I have noted, are considerably less stringent. And UC, through its requirements, sets the model for high school courseloads throughout the state. So we see that 15 percent of our boys take three or more years of science compared with 30 percent nationwide. In math, 32 percent of California's girls take four or more years compared with 45 percent nationwide.
5. Quantitative, Yes. Qualitative, No:
UC admits by statistics alone. We don't ask students even to list on their application the extracurricular activities in which they have been involved. Johnny has spent tireless hours on the tuba, Joan on the soccer field, but UC isn't interested. If there is extraordinary talent in a special area —particularly athletics — a student might gain admission by Special Action, a category limited to 6 percent of the entering class on each campus. But for most, these talents play no role in the admissions process.
6. The Cost. Wow: At first, I couldn't understand why it takes three times the staff at UC-Santa Cruz to process the same size applicant pool as we had at Vassar. This puzzle is compounded by the fact that at UC we have only numbers to review, not essays, recommendations, portfolios of poems or photographs or excerpts from term papers. And each folder is reviewed by only one person at UC. Now I have discovered the difference. UC loves lists and manuals, and it needs them to codify all the rules and regulations. Of course, it takes people to produce the rules and manuals, and people to apply them in all corners of the state. The rules are followed religiously, even though most have evolved mysteriously. ■ •
Richard Moll is Dean of Admissions at the University. of California at Santa Cruz and author of "Playing the Private College Admissions Game." This article was adapted from a speech he made recently at a UC forum in Berkeley