Good news about UCSD admissions: more qualified applicants

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Ever since The University of California's Board of Regents adopted race-neutral admission and hiring policies in 1995, proponents of race-based decision-making have been poring over student applications for evidence that ending affirmative action has driven minority students from the nine-campus system.

In February, UC's Office of the President released the application data for fall 97, when the new admissions policies will be implemented for graduate and professional schools (these policies go into effect for undergraduate admissions next January). Applications in general were at record levels, the office said, but those from minority students had declined for some campuses.

UC President Richard Atkinson said he was "concerned about the decline in applications among underrepresented minorities." In the same press release, Dennis Galligani, assistant vice president for student academic affairs, attributed some of the decline to the "debate over affirmative action," citing anecdotal evidence.

In his June 14 commencement address at UC San Diego, President Bill Clinton exploited these data when he kicked off what he called "a great and unprecedented conversation about race." The president warned of plummeting minority admissions as a result of the abolition of affirmative action.

But statistics are notoriously slippery, especially when manipulated for political ends. The president would do well to examine admission data from the very school whose commencement address he delivered.

UC San Diego, like some other UC campuses, did experience a drop in minority applications in the first admission cycle after the regents' widely publicized action. "A number of factors could have attributed to this decline," points out Darlene Morell, director of student research and information at UCSD, who set out to discover what those factors were.

Anyone can apply to the University of California, and many of those who do fail to meet even the minimum standards for admission. Thus, it is possible to have a decrease in applications but an increase in applicants who are actually qualified to attend.

To determine if this was the case at UCSD, Morell compared two applicant pools, one composed of students who applied for fall '96, prior to the regents' vote, and the other of students who applied for the year following the regents vote (fall 1997). She separated applicants into three categories: Those clearly ineligible for admission, those whose eligibility needed to be determined by the university, and those who clearly were eligible.

Applications from students who can claim membership to "traditionally underrepresented groups" (African-American, Mexican-American, Latino and Native American), did fall 3.6 percent from 1996 to 1997. But Morell's breakdown reveals that it was a 17 percent drop in the number of clearly ineligible applicants that produced this overall decline. In fact, the number of minority applicants who are clearly eligible increased by 3.6 percent from 1996 to 1997.

Except for Latinos (individuals who have some ancestor from anywhere in Central or South America except Mexico), whose clearly eligible applicants dropped by 1 percent, every minority group experienced gains. Applications from clearly eligible African-Americans and Mexican-Americans both increased 5 percent. Applications from clearly eligible Native Americans increased 6 percent and applications from clearly eligible Mexican-Americans increased 7.5 percent.

Morell's analysis concludes, "Compared to 1996: The number of UC eligible applicants from underrepresented ethnic groups increased; the number of ineligible applicants decreased. Net result: decline in number of applications from underrepresented ethnic groups."

These data are only for one campus for one year. No trends can be deduced from so limited a sample. Some proponents of ending affirmative action believe that by removing the stigma of preferential admissions, the UC will actually attract a greater proportion of highly qualified minority students; no such conclusion can be drawn from this limited data.

But the data do call into question any claim that the regents' new policy has discouraged qualified minority students from applying to UCSD. It would have been nice to hear the president, or even some top brass at the University of California, acknowledge this. And it would have been a better way to kick off an honest national conversation on race.

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