The Right Coast

September 08, 2004
Another "New" Idea for UC Admissions
By Gail Heriot

The Los Angeles Daily News reports that State Senator Richard Alarcon and others are urging UCLA to give students who live within 15 miles of its Westwood campus a special preference in admission. UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale says the idea will be considered by the appropriate UC authority, but I suspect (and hope) it will die there.

"Saying UCLA turns away too many talented minorities, Sen. Richard Alarcon called Wednesday for guaranteed admission for the top 4 percent of students from each high school within 15 miles of the Westwood campus.

"Flanked by two dozen students and other community members, Alarcon marched to the Chancellor's Office at the University of California at Los Angeles to present more than 1,300 letters from people in the community.

"'UCLA relies far too heavily on GPA (grade-point averages) and SAT (college entrance exam) scores,' said Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles.

"He added that qualities necessary for success, such as organizational skills, 'can't be measured by the SAT; civic responsibility can't be measured by your GPA.'"

Alarcon is only partly right on the last point. I suspect that high school GPA and the SAT are positively correlated with organizational skills and maybe even with a sense of civic responsibility. To be a good student it helps to be organized. Those with a sense of civic responsibility often also have a sense of individual responsibility for their own schoolwork and hence are often good students. But he is right that the correlation is probably loose and that some qualities that can lead to sucess are not measured by the SAT or by high school GPA. I might add, however, that UCLA is an academic institution, where academic skills always matter and that there are lots of routes to success in addition to attendance at a highly competitive academic institution.

Alarcon's suggested remedy, however, has noting to do with the problem he claims to see. Living within 15 miles of the UCLA campus is no measure of "organizational skills" and "civic responsibility" at all. Zero. Zilch. Why would the location of one's residence help those applicants who have good organizational skills or a high degree of civic responsibility, but poor academic indicators?

Alarcon's true aim is obvious. Many of the high schools around UCLA happen to have a fairly high minority population. Throughout the article he refers to the need to increase the number of minority students at UCLA. Evidently, he thinks this indirect way of raising minority enrollment will not violate California's Proposition 209 the way direct preferences would. This is error. Does he imagine that if the University of Alabama had been surrounded by white neighborhoods that Gov. George Wallace could have legally held down black enrollment by instituting preferences for neighborhood residents?

It's not the silliest idea I ever heard concerning UCLA admissions. That prize would have to go to the proposal by a UCLA faculty member (made shortly after Proposition 209 passed) that juvenile delinquents be given preferences at UCLA as a means of achieving diversity. But it's close.