The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Baseball is a lot like life. The line drives are caught, the squibbles go for base hits. It's an unfair game."....  ...Rod Kanehl.

Commentary of the Day - August 6, 2002:  College Admissions in the Era of Political Correctness.

The California Legislature recently released the final draft of a new "master plan" for education in the "golden" state.  Unlike the previous California higher education master plan that was developed in the late fifties and adopted in 1960, this new plan attempts to coordinate K-12 public education in the California with its public colleges and universities.  The old plan was aimed only at coordinating the three layers of public higher education in the state.

For readers outside of California a bit of background is in order.  The three layers of public higher education in California are structured much like a wedding cake.  The University of California with its handful of  campuses was given primary responsibility for research, Ph.D. level graduate programs, and for professional degrees in law, medicine and the like.  It occupied the top layer of the cake.  The California State College system comprised the middle layer of the cake.  It's nearly 20 campuses in urban and rural locations that ranged from San Diego State in the south to Humbolt in the north were intended to concentrate on undergraduate education and to a lesser degree on graduate education at the master's level.  (This system now has some 24 campuses, and is called the California State University system; but, its mission remains largely the same as it was 40 years ago.)  The bottom layer of the cake was occupied by somewhat more than 60 public junior colleges.  These offered both the first two years of the standard undergraduate curriculum and a wide range of "terminal" vocational programs.  The junior colleges, which are governed largely by independent boards similar to local school boards since have morphed into "community colleges", and have grown in number to more than 100 campuses statewide.  In the intervening decades there has been some progress towards providing more uniform governance for the community colleges, and the new master plan would extend that trend.

One nice thing about the old master plan was that everyone knew their place.  The U.C. system, which included the "crown jewel" at Berkeley and such heavyweights as UCLA and U.C., San Diego clearly was in the catbird's seat.  It was (and is) unashamedly elitist.  Only the top eight percent of California high school graduates are eligible for admission as freshmen to a University of California campus.  The California State University system campuses were (and still are) generally regarded as the "people's university".  The top third of the state's high school graduates are eligible for freshman admission.  Most campuses in the system are highly diverse, and include large numbers of students who are the first in their families to attend college.  The community colleges were intended to serve a broad range of interests including the vocational and career education requirements of both recent high school graduates and returning adult students as well as academic programs that offered the opportunity for a student, regardless of his or her high school performance, to transfer to a University of California or California State University campus after the completion of 60 semester units with reasonable grades.  The system ensured a wide range of opportunities for California's college going population.  However, the natural "pecking order" that was established by the old master plan created no end of jealousies regarding status and funding.

Somewhat surprisingly the newly proposed master plan does nothing to eliminate the pecking order.  It does call on the UC and CSU campuses to place more emphasis on teaching in tenure decisions, and it calls for more transparency about the percentage of undergraduate courses taught by non-tenure-track faculty members and graduate students.  This appears to be nothing more than "feel good" window dressing.  UC campuses likely will continue to place far greater emphasis on the scholarly credentials and accomplishments of its candidates for tenured positions, and these campuses will continue to use large numbers of graduate teaching assistants to staff undergraduate courses.  The CSU campuses already weight teaching very heavily in tenure decisions, so there is not much room for change there.  Unfortunately, because of increasing enrollment, weak budgets, and a bloated administrative structure that robs support from the academic side of the house, the CSU campuses are likely in the future to depend even more on part-time faculty to meet the demand for course sections.  These people already are evaluated almost entirely on their teaching, so little will change there.

There is, however, a feature of the new draft master plan that is likely to raise many eyebrows.  This is the section that calls on the UC and CSU systems to alter their admission procedures:

Recommendation 13.2 The governing boards of the California State University and the University of California should authorize each of their campuses to consider both objective and qualitative personal characteristics equally in assembling freshman classes annually from among the pool of eligible candidates.
The purpose of this "politically correct" recommendation ostensibly is to help "level the playing field" for low income and minority students whose opportunities are limited by their economic status or by the weakness of their high school experience.  Currently, eligibility for freshman admission to UC and CSU campuses is determined primarily by "objective" criteria such as SAT scores and high school grades.  The UC awards extra credit for advanced placement courses in the determination of a student's high school grade point average.  The goal of the "qualitative" evaluation would be to give extra credit to a candidate who has had to overcome adversity in the hope that this will lead to greater economic and ethnic diversity at the UC and CSU campuses.  (In reality the CSU campuses already are highly diverse, so this recommendation is aimed primarily at the elite UC campuses.)

The impetus for this change is largely political.  California is a majority minority state.  There is no one ethnic group that dominates.  However, some groups have fared much better than others when it comes to UC admissions.  Asians are twice as likely to meet the UC's "objective" admission criteria as whites, and whites are twice as likely as non-Asian minority members to meet the criteria.  By the early 1990's the UC campuses were becoming majority Asian.  Affirmative action programs were put in place to ensure greater diversity, but these were nixed by the passage of Proposition 209, which disallowed government programs based on race, ethnicity or gender.

However, in the IP's view giving a 50% weight in admissions decisions to the subjective determination of "qualitative personal characteristics" is fraught with danger.  It opens up too many opportunities for admissions officers and admissions committees to judge individual candidates unfairly in the hopes that some sort of statistical profile will be obtained for the overall student body.  And, in the long run the potential for outright discrimination in such a system is all too real.

At the same time, the IP would readily agree that the current playing field is not level.  First, it is not at all clear that the "objective" criteria now in use really are good predictors of student success in college.  Second, students who are poor are much more likely to receive a substandard K-12 education, and they are much less likely to have access to SAT preparation courses and advanced placement classes that help more affluent students score well under these "objective criteria" than their wealthier counterparts.

Unfortunately, life is not fair.  Even though we hold out "equal opportunity" as a fundamental goal for a truly democratic society, in reality opportunities are never exactly equal for all members of society.  We can, however, try to make sure that every high school graduate has a reasonably fair chance for admission to the UC system.  The IP would start by expanding the set of "objective criteria" used in determining admission eligibility to include a student's rank in his or her high school class (as judged by GPA in a fixed set of college prep courses that would be required to be offered in all high schools), and to include scores on an expanded set of entrance exams that would test achievement in basic subjects such as English and mathematics as well the more traditional SAT type exams.  Expanding the set of "objective" criteria would reduce the impact of AP classes and SAT prep courses, and would require every student who wants to be admitted to the UC system to demonstrate a range of abilities.

Nevertheless, even an expanded objective system for deciding who to admitted directly to the prestigious UC campuses as freshmen will not be completely fair, because success in college depends on a multitude of factors that are beyond objective measurement.  However, second chances abound in the system.  Students who are not admitted to a UC campus on the first try, have the opportunity to be admitted as transfer students if they can demonstrate a high level of performance in courses at a community college or state university campus.  It seems to the IP that these "second chance" transfer paths hold the key to ensuring fairness.  Students whose ability to succeed in the UC system may not have been apparent from their rankings according to the "objective" criteria, but who perform well in the first year or two of college courses should be guaranteed the opportunity to transfer to a UC campus if they wish.
In the interests of full disclosure readers are reminded that the Irascible Professor is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and he teaches at a California State University campus.

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