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Beyond the UC Berkeley admissions brouhaha

by David Kirp

It was page-one news across California when a confidential report on UC Berkeley admissions, prepared for UC Regent John Moores, concluded that the university had admitted nearly 400 students with subpar SAT scores. Though the report included no racial data, a Chronicle article posed the question -- was the university doing an end-run around Proposition 209 and engaging in affirmative action? Confronted with this seeming bombshell, as well as a similar story about UCLA admissions, the new president of the university, Robert Dynes, promised a "comprehensive examination" of admissions practices systemwide.

In scolding the university for ignoring the "goal of academic excellence, " Moores trivializes a serious issue. The University of California has led the way nationwide in demonstrating that, compared with high school grades, SAT scores do a bad job of predicting academic success. The performance of these 400 low-SAT-scoring students provides a case in point: They are doing well at Berkeley.

So are the hundreds of students who transfer every year from community colleges, for, despite having lower SAT scores than students who enroll as freshmen, transfer students earn better grades. That won't surprise any professor, who knows from experience that when it comes to academic success the "hungry-to-learn" factor matters more than test scores.

No, the true present danger for higher education in California has nothing to do with the 400 students with sterling SAT scores who didn't get those spots at UC Berkeley but almost certainly wound up at estimable universities. It has to do with, rather, the thousands of students now frozen out of higher education in California -- the casualties of budget cuts who are being denied access to any public college or university.

When California's Master Plan for Higher Education was unveiled in 1960, it instantly became the international gold standard for expanding access to a college education. That plan promises every high school graduate a good and affordable education. The top 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates are guaranteed a place in the University of California System, and the top third are assured of a spot in one of the state universities, such as San Francisco State University or Sacramento State University. All high school graduates can enter a community college, and if they make the grade, they're entitled to transfer to a UC school.

Here's the tragedy: The master plan hasn't officially been repealed, but its guarantee of universal higher education is effectively dead. Tuition at the University of California has been kept comparatively low ($5,437 a year as compared with $6,149 at the University of Virginia and nearly $8,000 at the University of Michigan) but that's quickly changing. With the state hemorrhaging money, financial support for higher education was trimmed -- the state now contributes about one-sixth of the university's operating budget.

This year the cost of attending the University of California was raised a jaw- dropping 30 percent, an increase second in magnitude only to the University of Arizona.

The picture is even grimmer at the community colleges. As enrollment increases have outstripped funding, many campuses have been forced to cut courses and put a cap on enrollment. To balance the books, community colleges raised their fees by more than a third, from $11 to $18 a unit. That's only about $100 a term, but community college students are especially sensitive to tuition increases. Many come from poor families that don't take the benefits of higher education for granted, and the higher the cost, the less they're willing to risk a job now for uncertain prospects later. At a recent hearing in Sacramento, community college officials estimated that enrollment was 100, 000 below what they had been expecting.

The master plan's promise of mobility to community college graduates -- do well and you can transfer to a public university -- has also fallen victim to the state's fiscal woes. In recent years, the number of transfer students has been steadily increasing. To keep pace with demand, the state agreed to underwrite 4 percent annual growth for UC, but during the budget negotiations last spring, the lawmakers broke that agreement. The impact is as dispiriting as it is predictable. The University of California has closed off enrollment for the spring semester, and more than 1,500 transfer applications from community college graduates have been returned unread. The California State University system, facing the same pressures, will turn away as many as 30,000 students next spring. The picture for next fall looks grimmer.

In recent months, California's politics have made perfect fodder for the late night TV talk show hosts, but when it comes to higher education, the state's dismal story typifies what's happening across the country. If John Moores wants a cause, let him take up the cudgels for these educationally disenfranchised students.

This article was originally posted on SF Gate.