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Dumbing Down at UC:

By this time next year, as the 2009-10 school year opens, the University of California may not be quite the institution it is today.

That’s because gradually, bit by bit, UC is diverging from its long-established role as an institution for the most elite of this state’s high school graduates.

The largest move in this direction came three years ago, when the 10-campus system adopted new rules to benefit products of rural and inner-city high schools. Instead of having to qualify under existing rules that guarantee a slot on at least one campus to every student in the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates statewide, suddenly anyone who graduated in the top 4 percent of his or her own class was automatically accepted.

This move was supposed to help out students from smaller schools and ones in urban inner cities where few, if any, advanced placement courses are offered. Doing well in these classes can boost grade point averages and thus help students taking them to become part of the top 12.5 percent statewide under UC’s complicated formula combining test scores, grades, and courses attempted.

So far, this change – expressly intended to increase minority admissions – has mostly benefited white students from rural areas and has been accompanied by small drops in the percentage of minority students at UC. Yet another example of the best-laid plans going awry.

Now the university’s faculty proposes another move aiming to improve the prospects of minorities. This time, the professors would have UC guarantee admission only to the leading 10 percent of high school graduates overall, besides the top 4 percent at all high schools. The slots now given to the next 2.5 percent of graduates would go to students to be evaluated subjectively, not merely on the basis of a hard formula.

If adopted by the university regents who will consider it for the first time this month, this would allow campus admissions officers to judge applicants on their individual merits and opportunities, so long as they’ve also taken all required courses and either the core SAT or ACT standardized national test.

Consider the possibilities this rule offers coaches trying to recruit less-than-sterling students for major athletic teams. It would, of course, be in the tradition of the so-called “2 percent rule” that’s long allowed UC schools to include among their admittees up to 2 percent who might not otherwise qualify, but possess “special talents.” While intended to beef up the oboe sections of school bands and the casts of student plays, this rule has often been applied to those with special talents as linebackers or point guards.

If the new proposal passes, it will be interesting to see how many football and basketball players are among those with exceptional individual merit and how many have overcome tough circumstances.

There’s no way to guarantee admissions officers will be honest enough and strong enough to resist the heavy pressure sure to be applied by highly paid and publicized coaches seeking top talent regardless of academic qualifications.

Even if they do resist, it’s certain no class admitted under the proposed new rules could be as strong academically as any that have gone before. You can call this fairer, or a better opportunity for some, or you can call it dumbing down. It may be all three. But it will surely make UC less elite than it has been.

Another certainty is that subjective evaluation of applicants would require a big boost in the number of persons reading admission applications. Does UC really want to invest money in this at a time when its budget – like those of other state institutions – is strapped as never before?

Not so certain is who the new rule might benefit, outside coaches and athletes. Some experts on minority college admissions predict it could cut the number of guaranteed black, Hispanic and Asian admittees. That’s because minority students – other than Asian Americans – are historically likely to have lower test scores than whites, with the difference usually chalked up to innate biases in vocabulary and other parts of the SAT and ACT.

So the last 2.5 percent among the present top 12.5 percent of high school graduates generally includes a higher number of minorities than, say, the top 2.5 percent or the middle 2.5 percent.

All of which means this move could not only lead to wasting money needed to maintain academic offerings, but also could produce a student body inferior to today’s, plus sports-inspired corruption of the entire admission process.

It adds up to a bad idea, pure and simple.

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