Did UCLA Change Admission Process to Aid Minorities?

In the spring of 2006, UCLA saw a sharp decline in the number of black students it expected to enroll the next fall. The total expected number was a mere 96 students out of an expected class of 4,852. In response, 200-300 students staged a protest in the hallway outside the chancellor’s office. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story about the protest and the decline in black admissions, as some UCLA officials declared the situation a “crisis.”

According to Proposition 209, a provision of the California Constitution, public universities cannot use race as a factor in admissions decisions. Students applying to UCLA are still asked to check a box that indicates their race. Members of the admissions staff are not allowed to see that information. 

Yet an open secret about admissions is that many students report their race in the essay part of their application.  

For example, a student might write, “As a person of color,” or “As a child of Honduran immigrants.” 

Since members of the admissions staff read the essays, that gives them a potential backdoor to implement racial preferences. 

When the Times ran its article, UCLA was using a system in which applicants were judged across three areas: (i) academic achievement, (ii) personal achievement, and (iii) life challenges. 

Academic achievement was based only on criteria like grade-point averages and SAT scores. Only one reviewer would read the personal essays of the applicant--the other two would not.

Under the “holistic” system soon proposed by UCLA administrators, however, all reviewers of an applicant would read the essays. Some people suspected that was the real intention behind the change--to allow readers to learn the race of applicants.

At the time, I was a member of UCLA’s faculty oversight committee for admissions, officially called the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools (CUARS). Near the end of the summer, the chair of my committee called a special meeting at which the chancellor of the university gave an unprecedented address. According to notes that I took--and which were subsequently published--the chancellor, Norm Abrams, began his remarks:

First, I want say how much I favor and respect faculty governance. I don’t want to pressure you. But at the same time, we worry about many of the same things. I want to report to you what we are hearing from the outside world. Several constituencies of UCLA are distressed and upset about the very low numbers of African American freshmen. The political angst and concern is enormous. I don’t feel the pressure. I sublimate very well. But there is pressure exerted upon me. The numbers of underrepresented minorities on campus are too small...

Abrams concluded with the following request:

I ask that you make the whole admissions process holistic. Not only that, I have a further request: This is that you do it quickly and adopt the exact same process that Berkeley currently uses.

After a brief discussion, the committee voted to do exactly what Chancellor Abrams requested. (Abrams has not denied these remarks.)

By spring of the next year, the holistic system appeared to produce its intended effect: UCLA doubled the number of African Americans who enrolled in its next freshman class, from 102 to 204.

Some people, however, were suspicious. They included New York Times reporter David Leonhardt, who wrote:

In the past, the admissions office divided every application between two readers: one evaluated a student’s academic record, the other looked at extracurricular activities and “life challenges.” Berkeley, by contrast, had taken a more holistic approach, with a single reader judging an entire application, and Berkeley was attracting more black students than U.C.L.A. Why? Maybe the holistic approach takes better account of the subtle obstacles that black students face--or maybe the readers, when looking at a full application, ended up practicing a little under-the-table affirmative action.

Last fall, U.C.L.A. made the switch. Two applications readers I interviewed said that they had received clear, written instructions not to consider race and that they hadn’t. (There are 150 readers in all, a mix of university employees and paid outsiders.) On the other hand, applicants seemed to understand that something had changed. Daniel Fogg, a computer programmer in the admissions office and an application reader, told me that he noticed more students mentioning race in their essays this year....

The big question that hangs over U.C.L.A.’s success, of course, is whether the university broke the law. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard not to conclude that race was a factor in this year’s admissions decisions. The average SAT score for admitted African-American students fell 45 points this year, to 1,738. For Asian, Latino and white students, the averages were much more stable.

A common response is that UCLA only gave class-based preferences--that is, because black applicants tend to face more socio-economic disadvantages than other applicants, it only appears as if UCLA gave racial preferences when it has not.

However, in my next article, I will show evidence of why that response falls apart. First, among UCLA applicants, I contend that the evidence shows that African Americans face approximately the same socio-economic disadvantages as Southeast Asians, and they actually face fewer socio-economic disadvantages than Latinos. Yet, as the admission rate for African Americans soared after UCLA switched to the holistic system, the rate for Latinos and Southeast Asians actually fell,

Second, the statistical evidence I will present suggests that for at least one aspect of UCLA’s admissions process, a rich African American applicant has almost double the chance of admission of a poor Asian applicant, even when the two applicants have the same grades, SAT scores, and other factors.

And finally, I will present what I believe is another key piece of evidence: the suspicious way UCLA administrators and faculty reacted when one of the members of the faculty oversight committee--me--asked for data about admissions.


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