A popular topic on this blog is university admissions and the representation of students from all racial/ethnic groups, especially at the University of California (’UC’), the nation’s largest, most diverse, and in many ways, the most controversial higher education venue in the country. With the debate on affirmative action still on high boil and as American society continues to become more diverse, the issue of university admissions is likely to be on the front burner of American educational policy for the foreseeable future.

The latest flare-up involves recently-approved changes to the University of California’s admissions requirements that tries to expand the pool of students who are eligible for admissions (as opposed to the actual criteria for deciding who actually is admitted). As Inside Higher Education reports, according to data from the UC itself, they project that under these new eligibility rules, the racial/ethnic group that would be affected most negatively in terms of admissions are Asian Americans:

36 percent of those admitted to the university system in 2007-8 were Asian Americans. Applying the new admissions standards, that percentage would drop to 29-32 percent. In contrast, white applicants made up 34 percent of those admitted in 2007-8. Under the proposed reforms, they would have made up 41 to 44 percent of the entering class. . . .

But university leaders are playing down the demographic projections and defending the admissions plan, which emerged from the Academic Senate, a system-wide faculty group. . . . The proposal before the Board of Regents today would do the following:

  • End the requirement that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.
  • Narrow from the top 12.5 to the top 9 percent of high school graduates the percentage who will be guaranteed admission to the university system (although not necessarily to the campus of their choice).
  • Expand the definition of applicants eligible for a full admission review to include all who complete 11 of 15 required high school courses by the end of their junior year, and achieve a grade-point average of at least 3.0

The last shift is expected to greatly expand the pool of those entitled to a full admissions review, where personal qualities and other factors may help some win admission. Indeed those deemed eligible for a full review would go up in all racial and ethnic groups. But the gains in eligibility are not necessarily going to translate into gains in admissions for all groups. . . .

Mary Croughan, an epidemiologist at the university’s San Francisco campus and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, said that the apparent disadvantage for Asian Americans is actually a result of their success. Such a large share of Asian American high school students already are eligible to be considered and win admission that their numbers couldn’t go up as much as those of other groups, she said.

It appears that there are two separate issues here. The first is, changing admissions eligibility rules so that more students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (specifically, African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians) will be eligible for admissions. On that count, I have always and continue to wholly support such efforts.

If these changes do in fact allow students from a more diverse set of backgrounds to have a chance at admission, they would be very similar to the kind of “holistic admissions” changes that I and other scholars support that do not focus specifically on an applicant’s race/ethnicity but would still give underrepresented minority students a better chance at admissions. So in this context, I think everybody involved is basically on the same page and share the common goal of wanting to improve the admissions chances of underrepresented students.

But it’s the second issue here that is much more controversial — will these proposed changes affect Asian Americans in a disproportionately negative way and will their proportions of all admissions decline as a result? The first question to ask is, how accurate are the UC’s own estimates and predictions? How likely is it that Asian American applicants will be hurt by these new changes? If it turns out that these changes do not affect the proportion of Asian Americans, the question is basically moot.

A regular reader of my blog (Oiyan Poon, graduate student in Education) is writing an analysis paper on this issue and makes several good points. First is that because the new eligibility rules basically expands the number of California students eligible for admissions (from 46,795 to 76,141), in terms of raw numbers, all racial/ethnic groups, including Asian Americans, will see an increase in the actual number of students eligible (about 4,000 for APAs).

But since the number of the increase for Asian Americans is small in proportion to their existing number of eligible students, the percent change represents an increase relative to the new overall total of students eligible for admissions. However, Oiyan points out that these projections are very tentative (projected to affect the first eligible class four years from now) and are based on several debatable assumptions — for instance, not all eligible students actually apply for admissions to the UCs. Finally, most of the increase in eligibility for APAs will benefit low-income and first generation students.

So as Oiyan points out, there are valid questions over whether the dire projections about fewer APA students being admitted under these new rules. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the new rules do end up lowering the proportion of each entering class that is Asian American. If so, the question then becomes, how fair are these changes? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to that particular question.

On the one hand, as the article points out, the number of Asian American applicants to the UC’s is already disproportionately high so that as a matter of simple mathematics, there’s not much room to go any higher and almost by default, their numbers would decline somewhat as a result of these changes.

On the other hand, we can validly argue that even if Asian Americans as a whole have disproportionately high application and admissions numbers, the fact is that every one of those Asian American students has worked hard and earned that position. Therefore, these changes would unfairly hurt them when in fact, they did everything right.

Inevitably, if these changes result in lower Asian American admission rates, there would certainly be a loud outcry from many critics of affirmative action — many of whom are already Asian American — that once again, “good” students are being denied admissions in favor of “mediocre” ones.

My position on affirmative action has always been two-fold: first, whether it relates to university admissions, government contracts, job preferences, etc., these areas of contention do not have to be zero sum propositions. That is, one person’s gain does not automatically have to mean another person’s loss. Instead, we can have a system that includes plenty of opportunities for everyone.

I understand that the number of university admission spots is not infinite and you have to draw the line somewhere, but if we as a society make higher education a higher priority, we can provide more opportunities for more students. In the process of doing so, we can also depressurize this atmosphere of intensity and hostility over a resource that in many ways, has been artificially limited.

My second point is that rather than focusing disproportionate attention on the symptoms of the problem, we need to address the fundamental cause of it — the unequal quality of education that underrepresented groups such as African Americans and Latinos face. In other words, through no fault of their own and even if they are extremely bright and hardworking, many such students receive a substandard education that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to university admissions.

For this reason, affirmative action was created to help them overcome these structural (as opposed to individual) disadvantages. So to really cure the root problem, we need to focus more attention on ensuring that all students, regardless of their race or where they live, receive access to a high quality education that will ultimately put everyone on the same level of competitiveness.

These are issues that we as a society have been dealing with and trying to address for generations and obviously, such solutions are easier said than done. However, for the first time in a long time, I think we have a realistic chance at making such changes. Hopefully this new administration can begin to take constructive steps toward more equality in elementary and secondary schools that can put underrepresented students in a better position to compete for university admissions.

With any hope, such disagreements around these admissions eligibility changes and the entire debate around affirmative action will fade into the background, if we tackle the root of the problem, rather than just trying to alleviate the symptoms.