GOVERNOR GRAY DAVIS set off a fierce debate when, in his January 4 inaugural address, he declared, ``we will seek diversity and fair play by guaranteeing to those students who truly excel by graduating in the top 4 percent of their high school'' automatic admission into the University of California. Two days later, in his State of the State, Davis reaffirmed his intention, stating, ``This policy, I believe, will promote diversity.'`
Well, Mr. Governor, you've been misled. Whatever other merits this change may have, it certainly won't do much to increase ethnic diversity.
UC's diversity headaches stem from one source: High school graduates from various ethnic groups do not qualify for UC in similar proportions. The university's mission, as outlined in California's Master Plan for Higher Education, is to educate those students in the top 12.5 percent of California's graduating high school seniors.
This means that any ethnic group whose members qualify for UC admission at a rate of less than 12.5 percent will be underrepresented in the system as a whole, unless standards are lowered for that group. Likewise, any ethnic group whose members qualify for UC at a rate exceeding 12.5 percent will be overrepresented.
Huge disparities in eligibility rates exist across ethnic groups. According to data from the University of California Office of the President, more than 3 in 10 Asian Americans graduate from California's high schools eligible for UC. The proportion for whites is 1 in 8, and less than 4 in 100 for both African Americans and Hispanics.
The eligibility-rate differential produces a qualified applicant pool with an ethnic composition that differs radically from that of the graduating seniors.
Asians, who constitute just less than 15 percent of California's high school graduates, constitute 30 percent of the students eligible for UC admission. Whites, at 47 percent of high school graduates, constitute 54 percent of the eligibility pool. While 30 percent of Californians who pick up a high school diploma each year are Hispanic, they are only 9 percent of UC's eligibility pool. The respective percentages for African Americans were 8 percent and 2 percent.
There is just no getting around these widely diverging qualification rates. The proposed admission plan, which would make the top 4 percent of each high school automatically eligible for UC provided they took prescribed classes, won't change this reality. There has been much hue and cry over the proposed plan, and its effects certainly deserve to be debated. But one thing is beyond dispute: It will do little to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students in the system.
In March of 1998, the UC Office of the President released a study showing that under a 4 percent plan, Hispanics would increase a mere 1 percent, from 9 to 10 percent of the eligible pool, and blacks would hold steady at 2 percent. Asians would tread water as well at 30 percent of all eligible students, while whites would drop a whopping 1 percent. In other words, the entire battle, based on the state's own data, is over a hypothetical 1 percent shift from white to Hispanic students.
UC found that even a much more radical plan to admit the top 12.5 percent of each high school to the exclusion of everyone else would fail to make UC's eligibility pool match the ethnicity of the state's graduating high school class. Under this plan, blacks and Hispanics would still be underrepresented by nearly half at 4 percent and 17 percent of the eligibility pool.
It's important to note that these are relative changes. The system will add some 3,500 students under the proposed 4 percent plan, so it is not anticipated that students from any ethnic group will decline in absolute numbers because of the changes. But what these data reveal cannot be wished away. Short of a return to a radical system of racial preferences, the ethnic composition of the University of California will not mirror the state's varied population anytime soon.