Monday, January 08, 2007

Merit-Based Admissions Changing Elite Universities

Sunday's Education Life section at the New York Times ran an interesting article on the impact of merit-based admissions policies at U.C. Berkeley. With the decline of affirmative action in California, Asian-American student enrollment has soared, and the situation has critics examining merit-based enrollment at the nation's elite universities:

The revolution at Berkeley is a quiet one, a slow turning of the forces of immigration and demographics. What is troubling to some is that the big public school on the hill certainly does not look like the ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, more than twice the national average. But it is the new face of the state’s vaunted public university system. Asians make up the largest single ethnic group, 37 percent, at its nine undergraduate campuses.

The oft-cited goal of a public university is to be a microcosm — in this case, of the nation’s most populous, most demographically dynamic state — and to enrich the educational experience with a variety of cultures, economic backgrounds and viewpoints.

But 10 years after California passed Proposition 209, voting to eliminate racial preferences in the public sector, university administrators find such balance harder to attain. At the same time, affirmative action is being challenged on a number of new fronts, in court and at state ballot boxes. And elite colleges have recently come under attack for practicing it — specifically, for bypassing highly credentialed Asian applicants in favor of students of color with less stellar test scores and grades.

In California, the rise of the Asian campus, of the strict meritocracy, has come at the expense of historically underrepresented blacks and Hispanics. This year, in a class of 4809, there are only 100 black freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles — the lowest number in 33 years. At Berkeley, 3.6 percent of freshmen are black, barely half the statewide proportion. (In 1997, just before the full force of Proposition 209 went into effect, the proportion of black freshmen matched the state population, 7 percent.) The percentage of Hispanic freshmen at Berkeley (11 percent) is not even a third of the state proportion (35 percent). White freshmen (29 percent) are also below the state average (44 percent).

This is in part because getting into Berkeley — U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked public university — has never been more daunting. There were 41,750 applicants for this year’s freshman class of 4,157. Nearly half had a weighted grade point average of 4.0 or better (weighted for advanced courses). There is even grumbling from “the old Blues” — older alumni named for the school color — “who complain because their kids can’t get in,” says Gregg Thomson, director of the Office of Student Research.
Read the whole article. With the low admissions rate for blacks and Hispanics, critics of the high proportion of Asians are calling for a return of affirmative action. But that's a bad idea. Blacks and Hispanic will increase their numbers when their levels of academic achievement improve. I blogged about this controversy previously. See my earlier entry, "Rise of Asian-Americans at University of California Revives Affirmative Action Debate."

The success of Asian applicants at elite universities is a nationwide phenomenon, and the article discusses the case of Jian Li, whose application to Princeton was rejected, allegedly on the basis of his ethnicity. Li had perfect SAT scores and a near-perfect GPA, and his rejection raises questions of anti-Asian bias in university admissions programs. The Wall Street Journal took a compelling look at the phenomenon a while back in an article by Daniel Golden, "
Is Admissions Bar Higher for Asians at Elite Schools?" Li's now a freshman at Yale University, but he's filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, which has agreed to investigate his case.

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