The University of California prides itself on its accessibility to low-income students. But its most recent change to its admission policies won’t be helping students’ chances – or the University’s.
Last week, the Board of Regents approved an augmented review process that would allow undergraduate admissions officers to request supplemental materials from up to 15 percent of UC applicants. Applicants can submit one or more of three materials: a written response to a questionnaire asking about their educational environment or extraordinary circumstances they faced, high school senior-year grades and up to two letters of recommendation.
The regents defended the change as a way to get a more complete picture of applicants about whom admissions officers are on the fence for admitting. But while supplemental materials can give admissions officers a more holistic view of applicants, allowing students to submit letters of recommendation can disadvantage applicants from low-income communities or schools.
If the UC wants to maintain its image as an institution that serves low-income students, it needs to remove the option to send letters of recommendation for the augmented review process. Recommendation letters depend heavily on the resources available to applicants, and it’s inequitable to evaluate students on the merit of someone else’s glowing words instead of their own achievements and experiences.
This isn’t to say the augmented review policy is entirely wrong. Asking students to explain their academic record through questionnaires or grades allows them to explain any lapses in their applications and demonstrate continued academic excellence.
What’s unfair, however, is expecting students from low-income districts and private schools to provide equally representative letters of recommendation.
It may be difficult, for example, for students who come from districts where few attend college to obtain compelling letters from teachers due to large class sizes. Affluent schools, on the other hand, typically have small class sizes and trained college counselors experienced in writing letters of recommendation.
Even getting recommendation letters from mentors outside of school, such as work supervisors, can prove difficult for applicants from low-income communities, as students supporting their families may not have access to mentors who can convincingly vouch on their behalf.
Moreover, letters of recommendation transfer control over applications from students to teachers. The UC application asks students to to explain themselves, their experiences and their academic records as they see fit. Letters of recommendation, however, take away this agency and instead showcase a teacher’s ability to represent a student’s achievements.
The regents, therefore, need to remove the option for students to supply supplemental letters of recommendation. Socioeconomic status has too large a bearing on the recommendation letter process for the admission policy to be fair to low-income students.
Certainly, applicants can choose to submit one or more of the supplemental materials, implying admissions officers wouldn’t weigh in favor of students who submit letters of recommendation. But that’s a naive assumption: An application that includes eloquent recommendation letters would inevitably stand above an almost equal application without any.
Students from less affluent districts should have as much of a chance as students from elite schools to represent their academic achievements, independent of their teachers’ writing skills. Letters of recommendation, however, challenge that notion of equitability.
After all, students’ applications, not letters from their teachers, should be what recommend universities to accept them.