Eitan Arom: Admissions disparity calls for review of system
By Eitan Arom
Oct. 23, 2012 12:33 a.m.
In light of a report published this morning, it may be time for UCLA to rethink the so-called “holistic” admissions process that has been in place since 2007.
In a 12-page analysis released by UCLA Law professor Richard Sander, he presents compelling evidence that UCLA’s admissions office is taking race into account in their decisions, a criteria illegal in California since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.
Sander’s claims cast doubt on the legitimacy of the holistic system. In light of his findings, UCLA must be prepared either to produce strong counter-evidence or seriously amend the admissions process that has been in place since 2007. Should the latter path become necessary ““ and the data suggests that it will ““ significant oversight must be installed to eradicate the possibility of race preferences.
Perhaps the most alarming piece of data Sander produced is the race disparity in acceptance rates for students of a given admissions rating.
Upon review by a reader, each applicant is given a holistic score from one to five, one being the most highly recommended for admission, that includes all socioeconomic and academic data about that person. Theoretically, students with the same holistic score are equally eligible for admission.
But among students with a holistic score of 3.5 ““ a score in the lower range ““ only 3 percent of white students were admitted compared with 15 percent of black students. Based on this data, a given black student with a score of 3.5 was five times more likely than the same white student to be admitted to UCLA.
The engine driving this disparity seems to be a process called supplemental review, wherein students with exceptional life circumstances are evaluated apart from their holistic score.
According to Robert Mare, a UCLA sociology professor commissioned by administrators in 2008 to examine holistic review, minorities are disproportionately represented in supplemental review. These students are subsequently more likely than their peers of the same holistic rank to be accepted. This discrepancy, Mare said, explains the fluctuation in admission rates across holistic score and causes minorities to constitute an undue percentage of the freshman class.
In an interview with the Daily Bruin, Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, rejected the claim that racial discrimination is driving the disparity. Instead, minority students are more likely than others to encounter the type of exceptional situations that could elicit supplemental review, she said.
In all fairness, Copeland-Morgan assumed her position as associate vice chancellor this spring, long after the period from which Sander’s data was drawn. However, her explanation largely fails to hold water. If the holistic score is meant to account for all variables, including socioeconomic challenges, an extra holistic process such as supplemental review should not be able to tilt the data so drastically in favor of black applicants.
Researchers like Mare and Sander have been unable to find what exceptional situations would merit supplemental review. It seems that supplemental review is simply a smokescreen behind which race preferences can go on unobstructed. Both Sander and Mare found that the holistic process itself is largely unbiased ““ only once supplemental review is accounted for do the odd patterns in the data begin to show up. In other words, holistic review can be virtuous, unless it is made subject to the unfettered discretion of admissions officers.
If UCLA is to correct the iniquities that Sander seems to have uncovered, the process of supplemental review must be brought under strict oversight. That means it is up to the admissions office to issue a set of stringent guidelines as to exactly when an applicant can be referred to supplemental review. To begin with, it should release the available data on this process in order for public scrutiny to proceed without arduous record requests such as the one Sander pushed through.
After all, a score that is deemed “holistic” should account for every relevant characteristic of an applicant. If the admissions office is willing to scrap that score, the circumstances must be exceptional indeed. Challenges associated with socioeconomic disadvantage simply are not enough to merit undermining the holistic system.
The admissions office has few options short of suspending supplemental review, at least until it institutes clear limits on its use. Moreover, such a measure should be undertaken with great expediency. Otherwise, legal action on the part of rejected applicants or advocacy groups could strip UCLA of its discretion over admissions.
“I’ve worked on many housing discrimination cases over the years, and if you had data like this, you would have a guilty verdict,” Sander said.
Sander’s analysis is troubling at best and damning at worst. Before UCLA moves into yet another application cycle with its current system, it must make its admissions data subject to comprehensive and independent review.
If the holistic system flunks that review, precautions will become necessary to ensure that race neutrality, as mandated by California voters, is a guiding principle of admissions at UCLA.