University of California System’s Fishy New Admissions Policies

California voters banned state universities from using race-based admissions 13 years ago. But anybody who thought that this would prompt university officials to give up their grand diversity designs and admit students based on merit had to be living on Forrest Gump Land. Everybody else on Planet Earth should not be surprised that the admissions policies recently announced by the University of California will continue to play racial favorites. The surprise only is that the group that they appear designed to help this time is not some socially victimized, historically discriminated, politically marginalized, economically depressed minority. Rather the anointed group this time is none other than majority whites. (Yes, whites are still a majority in the Golden State — although barely!)

The new policies — that represent the biggest change in UC admissions since 1960 — were announced without much advance notice a couple of months ago. They will no longer require prospective applicants to take two subject SAT exams. And they will reduce the number of students guaranteed admission based on grades and test scores. Instead, the policy will consider anyone who completes the required high school courses, takes the general SAT or ACT exams and maintains a 3.0 GPA.

The big losers under the new policy will be Asian Americans. They constitute only 12% of the Golden State’s population. But thanks to their nasty tendency to ace standardized tests and school exams, they account for 40% of the students at UCLA; 53% at Berkley; 50% at UC-San Diego and 54% at Irvine.

Naturally, diversity-minded officials can’t have that. A study they commissioned before they diluted the admission standards — but have since tried to bury — found that by using the new criteria they could cut Asian American numbers from 36% to 29-32%, keep black and Hispanic numbers flat; and raise white numbers by 6 to 10%!

Asian American groups, predictably, are going red hot crazy like a white-bread Brit who’s just consumed a five-chilly-rated Vindaloo supper. California is one of the few states where Asians have gotten a fair shake ever since Prop 209 scrapped race-based preferences that favored blacks and Hispanics and UC regents scuppered legacy preferences that favored white candidates. (Both efforts were spearheaded by Ward Connerly). Indeed, as I had reported in a Reason magazine article last year, a study by Princeton University’s Tom Espenshade of a dozen selective colleges found that racial preferences gave black and Hispanic candidates an advantage of 230 and 185 extra SAT points respectively. And preferences for legacy candidates gave many white candidates an edge of 160 points. By contrast, being Asian American represented a 50 SAT-point disadvantage. This means Asian Americans have to score anywhere from 280 to 230 points better than blacks and Hispanics and 210 better than legacy whites to get accepted in the best colleges. Indeed, except in California, Asian Americans are the new Jews.

But even though the reaction of Asian Americans is understandable, the new policies are race neutral and hence likely not challengeable on constitutional or legal grounds. Moreover, if the purpose of the new policies was really to give the widest possible swath of California students a shot at a higher education — as university officials claim is the case — then there would be nothing objectionable about them, regardless of their impact on any particular group. Arguably, there is something downright offensive about the very idea of elite public universities whose mission requires them to keep their campuses explicitly off-limits to a huge chunk of the public that pays their bills.

But that emphatically is not the purpose of California’s new standards. If it was then university officials would establish a basic admission criterion and then use some kind of a lottery system to hand out slots to qualified applicants. But California university officials have given no indication that that’s what they will do. Rather, there is every reason to believe that they will pick the winners and losers in the admissions game based on some amorphous, subjective criteria. This means that they will gain enormous new discretion to decide the fate of thousands of students that they never had when they applied objective, standards-based criteria. This kind of arbitrary authority in the hands of bureaucrats inevitably ends up serving the interests of the privileged. That’s what’s happening at the University of California.

“The primary goal (of the new standards),” insists UC President Mark Yudof, “is fairness and eliminating barriers that seem unnecessary.” But no matter how hard he tries to serve his admissions policies as kosher — they smell like spoilt gefilte fish!