California Forum

Don’t mess with college admissions policy that works

For decades, California has debated how best to admit applicants to its public universities, to help foster upward mobility.

The University of California and California State University considered race and ethnicity as key elements in evaluating students for admission, until voters approved Proposition 209, which banned such preferences.

Ever since, some advocates allege the “elitist” university was turning its back on groups that were underrepresented and historically discriminated against.

The subtext is that our public universities ignored their potential to be vehicles to offer the disadvantaged and people of lesser means the opportunity to advance. By focusing on test scores and grade-point averages, the critique goes, people of lesser means weren’t able to compete. That would be a substantive shortcoming, if it were true.

Defenders of California universities’ policies – we count ourselves in this group – point out that California recruits disadvantaged students, no matter their race and ethnicity. University of California and California State University campuses outstrip most universities in their class by admitting far more students who are Pell Grant-eligible, meaning their families earn $70,000 or less annually.

Admittedly, the question lingers, even among defenders of the system, that perhaps the universities did a great job in recruiting but that retention of the disadvantaged students was a thornier issue.

Well, a definitive answer came last month from an unbiased, highly reputable source that crunched numbers and found that the UCs are among the best at recruiting disadvantaged kids – and unmatched at getting them through the system.

The University of California budget woes have deeply affected campus life. Yet the system’s nine campuses lead the nation in providing top-flight college education to the masses.

The New York Times reported on a sophisticated College Access Index that it developed to determine how well a university does after it has admitted poor kids. Using several metrics to determine accessibility and chances for success for disadvantaged students, the Times concluded that of the top 10 schools in the country that “are doing the most for low-income students” six are UCs – Irvine, Davis, Santa Barbara, San Diego, UCLA and Berkeley.

Simply put, the University of California is the best educational system in the country to foster upward mobility for the disadvantaged. If you are poor and have potential and drive – no matter your race, ethnicity or gender – there is no place better.

The UCs are not elitist enclaves oblivious to the disadvantaged. They have dedicated resources and effort to making sure that disadvantaged kids with potential and moxie are admitted and given every opportunity to succeed.

How the Legislature and California’s educational leaders react to these seemingly dispositive data will tell us a great deal. Their commitment to nondiscrimination and fairness will be put to a test.

Do California’s leaders support a system of public higher education that is doing better than anywhere else to help the disadvantaged, or will there be a push once again to inject the divisive criteria of race and ethnic considerations that, by their very nature, prefer some disadvantaged over others based on immutable reasons of birth?

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León recently told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that he wants to help more poor minority kids be admitted to the University of California. How about more poor kids, no matter their race or ethnicity? Who will tell the poor kids who aren’t racial or ethnic minorities that they won’t be admitted because they aren’t disadvantaged in the right way?

California leaders who care about education ought to be taking a victory lap for a system that has maintained excellence and world academic leadership while truly diversifying its student body with those in need of a hand up. We all should hope that political posturing won’t mess it up.

David A. Lehrer is president and Joe R. Hicks vice president of Community Advocates Inc. in Los Angeles. Their most recent piece for The Bee, “To stop terrorism, law enforcement needs to be cognizant of the world around them,” appeared Aug. 7, 2014.