Six years ago, the University of California won nationwide praise and censure when it outlawed affirmative action in admissions decisions. Last week, it took another bold step.
Beginning this autumn, University of California campuses will for the first time be able to look beyond test scores and grade-point averages when evaluating every applicant. Other factors - from overcoming hardship to musical talent - will now always be given consideration.
To some, the rules seem like a thinly veiled attempt to skirt the affirmative-action ban. But many experts say this is simply the latest gambit to ensure fairness in a rapidly changing collegiate world. As record numbers of students apply to college, more are being rejected, forcing admissions officers into ever-more-creative ways to gauge would-be freshmen - and subjecting the process to unprecedented scrutiny.
"Over the past decade, the classical test-score, GPA-driven admissions have begun to be reexamined for their efficacy," says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "It's a huge deal.... To move away from a mechanical admissions policy to a more complex and subtle policy is going to have a tremendous impact."
The significance of last week's move lies primarily in the fact that, for nearly half a century, California has been a trendsetter on issues of education. From its adoption of the Stanford Achievement Test as a universal yardstick to its curtailing of bilingual education, California has consistently been at the vanguard of education reform.
"Wherever public policy is going, California gets there first," says Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education in Washington.
In a broad sense, California's new "comprehensive review" is nothing new. Private colleges have long looked at applicants' full dossier of academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and life experiences. But state colleges - dealing with a far greater volume of students - have seldom had that luxury. The trend is growing, though. Texas has incorporated nonacademic criteria for several years for half its students. The other half gain admittance automatically by finishing in the top 10 percent at their high schools.
To be sure, the question of how to admit the best freshman class is being looked at closely nationwide. For decades, the University of California - like other public institutions - has held that a certain percentage of students had to be chosen on academic merit alone, and only the remaining students could be chosen by looking at other factors as well.
Until last week, the two groups were set at 50 percent each. Now, admissions officers can take all aspects into account for every applicant. It's a more costly and time-consuming method, but administrators say the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
"The system we had been using put artificial restrictions on campuses looking for the most-qualified applicants," says Brad Hayward, a spokesman for the UC system.
Not everyone agrees, though. Some critics have charged that these standards are fuzzier and could allow admissions officers to admit students based on race. Moreover, others say, choosing a class based on factors other than academics can lead to a lower-quality student body.
For their part, Texas officials say this has not been the case. Often, students chosen by "comprehensive review" have outperformed their academically admitted colleagues. "If you're in admissions, you need more information, not less," says Bruce Walker, admissions director at the University of Texas in Austin. "It's important to put students' achievements in some sort of context."
Under the old guidelines, University of California's Berkeley campus tried to do that as much as possible - sometimes looking at applications half a dozen times for students not chosen solely by academics. Now that all campuses can choose all their students in this way, Berkeley has become something of a model.
At Berkeley, more than 60 readers - both teachers and hired professionals - get 60 to 70 hours of training in how to evaluate applications, and students are sometimes asked to send more information.
Campus officials say they haven't seen a radical change in the student body since this policy began three years ago, nor do they expect a revolution now. But the policies have had a subtle effect. "We have a more engaged group, because we're looking at a broader definition of merit," says Calvin Moore, a math professor.