Civil Rights Groups Sue UC-Berkeley Over Admissions Criteria

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Several students and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the University of California, Berkeley, last week, alleging that its undergraduate-admissions policies discriminate against minority applicants.

The class action accuses the highly competitive public school of relying too heavily on SAT scores and whether applicants have taken honors and advanced-placement classes. Such classes are not available in many high schools with mostly minority enrollments, said Kimberly West-Faulcon, the Western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the civil rights groups that brought the case.

SAT exams are problematic, she argued, because they are designed to gauge students' performance during the freshman year of college rather than their entire college careers.

"We want Berkeley to go back to the drawing board and come up with a fair policy," Ms. West-Faulcon said.

Officials of UC-Berkeley defended its policy.

"The plaintiffs claim that Berkeley does not want African-American, Latino, and Filipino-American students. This is not true--we do," Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl said in a statement. "We seek minority students vigorously and welcome them eagerly."

'Terribly Wrong'

Admissions policies in California have been under fire since 1996, when voters approved a ballot initiative to eliminate the use of racial and gender preferences in state programs, including admissions and financial-aid decisions at public colleges and universities.

The University of California board of regents implemented a policy in 1997 prohibiting admissions officers from considering an applicant's racial or ethnic background and from relying on a mathematical formula to evaluate students.

Instead, the board mandated that officials assign scores to student portfolios. Admissions personnel now give equal weight to students' academic achievement--as shown by test scores, difficulty of coursework, and analytical ability--and achievement in academic-enrichment programs outside of school activities and nonacademic qualities such as character and cultural background.

As a result, UC-Berkeley had a 51 percent drop in the admission of black, American Indian, and Hispanic applicants for the 1998-99 school year, compared with the year before, university officials reported. Forty-four percent fewer minority students ended up enrolling at the school.

Some 750 black, Latino, and Filipino-American students with grade point averages above 4.0 were denied admission under the new policy, the lawsuit states.

"As the son of immigrant farm workers, my family encouraged me to work hard to earn a 4.0 grade point average so that I could have the type of good college education Berkeley provides," Jesus Rios, one of the student plaintiffs and now a freshman at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. "There is something terribly wrong when qualified minority students cannot attend UC-Berkeley."

Minority students weren't the only applicants disappointed that they weren't accepted, university officials said.

According to the admissions office, 30,046 students applied for admission last fall for 8,450 seats. Only 28 percent of those who applied were accepted, a rate just slightly higher than at other top schools like Duke University and Yale University.

Some 7,000 students with 4.0 grade point averages or better were denied admission, including 37 percent of whites, 33 percent of Asian-Americans, and 11 percent of African-Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics, collectively, who applied.

Still, minority students are less likely to have an opportunity to attend high schools with advanced classes, a major consideration in the decision process, said Ms. West-Faulcon of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

An analysis of data from the California Department of Education completed by the plaintiffs found that over half of California's public high schools offered no advanced-placement courses during the 1997-98 school year.

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Page 6

Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Civil Rights Groups Sue UC-Berkeley Over Admissions Criteria
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