Senate Source

June 2008

Assembly Passes Eligibility Reform Policy

Innovative Proposal Now Moves to the Board of Regents



The Academic Senate is proposing important modifications to policy governing freshman eligibility and admission to the University of California. The proposal includes a new pathway to eligibility – “Entitled To Review (ETR)” – originally developed by the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS). It recently passed the Academic Council and Academic Assembly, and now heads to the Board of Regents for final review and approval.


If accepted by The Regents, ETR would broaden the pool of freshman applicants visible to UC campuses and give all campuses the ability to select from the pool based on their existing comprehensive review practices. The policy would also eliminate the strict requirement for the SAT II Subject test and establish a new eligibility referral guarantee structure for ETR-designated students.


Academic Senate Chair Michael T. Brown, UC Santa Barbara Professor of Counseling/ Clinical/and School Psychology, observes, “It was clear that members of the Academic Council and the Academic Assembly were impressed with the quality of the proposal, the strength of its supporting logic and analysis, and the power with which it was communicated by the chair of BOARS. In the end, the strength of the vote showed that the faculty believes this innovative proposal serves the cause of academic excellence, procedural fairness, and diversity.”


BOARS Chair and UC Davis Professor of Engineering Mark Rashid says the aims of ETR are to better identify the California high school graduates best prepared for the rigors of a UC education; to identify those students more fairly by better honoring achievement in the context of opportunity; to shift the emphasis toward actual educational achievement and away from satisfaction of a long list of bureaucratic rules and requirements; and to send a stronger message to students and schools about appropriate college preparation.


“ETR is a major step toward ensuring that the qualifications of each student who applies to UC are evaluated fairly, accurately, and comprehensively before arriving at an admission decision,” says Professor Rashid. “ETR will expand the pool of students visible to UC and give many additional deserving students access to a review. It will help simplify eligibility and broaden the expectation, particularly in low API schools, that a UC education is possible. Depending on applicant behavior, ETR may also help increase enrolment of qualified underrepresented minority students.”


The Academic Assembly passed the proposal on June 11 by a vote of 38 to 12, and The Regents are expected to review it at their July 15-17 meeting at UC Santa Barbara. ETR would be the first significant revision to freshman eligibility policy since 2004, when the Academic Senate recommended aligning the GPA calculation method for Eligibility in the Statewide Context to the requirements for Eligibility in the Local Context. If accepted by The Regents, ETR would take effect for the fall 2012 freshman admissions cycle. It also institutes a regular cycle of evaluation and reporting in which BOARS would analyze its impact and could recommend a revised guarantee structure for future Senate consideration.


The distinctive feature of UC’s current system of admissions is the pre-filter of “eligibility,” which the state guarantees to the top 12.5% of California high school graduates. UC eligible students not accepted to any campus to which they apply have a guarantee of admission to a campus with enrollment space if they have taken the required “a-g” course pattern; completed a specific pattern of testing (the SAT and SAT II subject test or ACT); and achieved a minimum score on a performance index based on those tests and their GPA. Campuses then conduct a comprehensive review of eligible applications, which students submit to their preferred campus(es). In addition, the Eligibility in a Local Context (ELC) program extends the referral guarantee to the top 4% of graduates in each high school.


Professor Rashid says that in considering a new policy, BOARS was motivated by four guiding principles: 1) that UC Admission should be awarded primarily on the basis of academic achievement; 2) that assessment of this achievement should be based on multiple sources of evidence; 3) that assessment of achievement should account for circumstances in which it occurred; and 4) that all of California’s college-ready students, regardless of background, should be afforded the opportunity to have their qualifications fairly and accurately assessed for purposes of admission.


BOARS discovered over long study that the current eligibility construct excludes many students from consideration for technical reasons that have little bearing on actual merit and are difficult to justify academically. Last year, for example, approximately 6% of high school graduates failed to take the SAT II and about 2% failed to take only one course in the a-g pattern, often for reasons having to do with educational opportunity. BOARS’ data showed that many of these students are highly qualified and could otherwise be admitted to UC, but end up attending other excellent colleges.


But the current policy, according to Rashid, forces UC to exclude some students who may be more deserving than other students who receive the referral guarantee; it also forces UC to presume that all California high school students have uniform educational opportunities and personal circumstances. The fundamental assumption of ETR is that a comprehensive review of a broader pool of qualified students that assesses multiple indicators of achievement in the context of educational opportunity will result in selection of a set of students for admission to UC that is a more appropriate representation of the ‘top 12.5%’ than occurs using the current admission criteria.


“From the beginning,” Rashid says, “BOARS’ goal was simple and quite appropriate for a great land-grant public institution: to move UC toward greater fairness in how we decide who has earned the benefit of a UC education. Applicants should not be summarily denied because of failure to conform to every single one of a long list of rules and regulations, any one of which may, by itself, have essentially no bearing on a student’s readiness to excel at UC.”


Professor Brown, a former BOARS chair himself, agrees: “The current eligibility construct works to prevent some students from applying, from receiving a comprehensive admissions consideration, and from being granted an admission, even if they otherwise demonstrate high academic achievement. Some of these deserving students apply to UC, only to be denied admission or even meaningful consideration, because of trifling variances from the rules of eligibility. The lack of one test or one course, absent of context and other considerations, should not make otherwise excellent students invisible to UC “


“Excellence is not a static condition,” adds Brown. “It is the highest aspiration of my UC colleagues in every area of our responsibilities, including admissions. We expect the recommended modification of UC’s eligibility policy to align more excellently with the principles undergirding UC admission.”


If accepted by The Regents, the Senate’s proposal would do several specific things. First, it would eliminate the SAT II Subject test as a strict requirement for admission, although campuses and individual programs would still be able to recommend specific Subject tests. Second, it would replace the current eligibility pre-filter with ETR. Students would gain ETR status by taking either the SAT Reasoning or the ACT with its Writing component and completing 11 of 15 a-g requirements with a 2.8 or better GPA by grade 11. ETR-designated students would be guaranteed a review at any UC campus to which they apply. Third, ETR students would have an additional referral guarantee if an index of their test scores and honors-weighted a-g GPA place them within the top 9% of the state or if their GPA places them within the top 9% of their high school class. BOARS projects that these proportions will together yield a guarantee of UC admission to about 9.7% of the top California high school graduates, and will allow campuses to offer admission to an additional 2.8% from the ETR pool to meet the state’s 12.5% target.


Campuses like UC Merced and UC Riverside would become immediately selective. The proposal’s intent is to allow campuses to exercise their authority, through their individual comprehensive-review-based selection processes, to determine UC-readiness and a portion of the UC eligibility pool. The policy would not mandate changes to local comprehensive review and selection processes or to referral pool mechanisms. Students admitted to UC would still be expected to complete the full set of 15 required a-g courses prior to enrolling, and failure to do so would be grounds for cancellation of admission, although that would not be automatic as it is now.


Unlike the current eligibility policy, with ETR, a student without a referral guarantee is not automatically excluded from full admissions consideration. If a student has ETR status, their application will be reviewed and fully assessed alongside everyone else’s, and if they are competitive, they will be admitted. ETR gives prospective students greater access to the context-based comprehensive assessment of applications that operate on the campuses. The profile of the entering class is therefore not dictated completely by the referral guarantee structure. “Only through comprehensive review can the admission process properly account for the context of student achievement,” Rashid says. “And only through comprehensive review can appropriate flexibility be introduced to account for the minor variances from rules and regulations that invariably result when students do not receive strong college advising.”


Council released BOARS’ original eligibility reform proposal for systemwide Senate review in August 2007 and a supplementary Q and A document from BOARS about the proposal in September. That initial review concluded in December 2007, when the Academic Council asked BOARS to address some of the questions and concerns raised by reviewing agencies. BOARS responded in February 2008 with a revised proposal.


BOARS’ original proposal included the current recommendations regarding ETR and the SAT Subject tests, but it maintained the Eligibility in a Local Context pathway at its present level of 4% per school, and eliminated the statewide eligibility pathway. During the initial review, Senate agencies expressed general support for the principles underlying BOARS’ efforts, and its goals to broaden the eligibility pool, encourage selection of the top students for admission, and increase admission from underrepresented and low-income groups. There was also a great deal of support for the ETR admissions pathway, for the elimination of the SAT II requirement, and for a more flexible approach to the a-g requirements. Many reviewers agreed with data presented by BOARS showing that some standards set by the current eligibility construct – particularly the SAT II requirement – are arbitrary and academically unjustified. The main concerns expressed, though, were about the elimination of the eligibility guarantee and the cost of implementation to the campuses. There was also a request for more data projecting the impacts on student quality.


In February, BOARS responded with a revised proposal that maintained its original recommendations to implement ETR and eliminate the SAT Subject requirement. The revision also expanded the referral guarantee over the original proposal to a subset of ETR students that are either in the top 5% statewide among graduating high school seniors, or in the top 12.5% of graduates from their school. Due to significant overlap, BOARS estimated that a 12.5% ELC guarantee would yield an additional 5% over the 5% statewide eligibility pool, conferring a guarantee of UC admission to about 10% of California high school graduates. BOARS argued that 12.5x5 index was the optimal metric for maintaining student quality and improving diversity.


Senatewide review of the revised proposal showed significantly broadened and increased support. Senate reviewing agencies continued to express general support for broadening the pool of applicants visible to UC through the ETR pathway and for eliminating the SAT Subject tests as a strict requirement. Most reviewers also supported the expansion of the referral guarantee over the original proposal. However, there were reduced but significant concerns about the specific proportions of the new proposed guarantee structure. Several reviewers were concerned that the 12.5% within-school and 5% statewide guarantee index might be and might be seen to be too drastic a departure from current practice.


At its May meeting, the Academic Council settled on a compromise proposal that would institute the ETR admissions pathway, eliminate the SAT Subject test requirement (while retaining the ability of campuses or programs to recommend specific Subject tests), and establish an initial modified admissions referral guarantee structure of 9% within-school and 9% statewide, which BOARS projects will yield a 9.7% overall guarantee referral rate.


Professor Brown says the Academic Council and Assembly were persuaded that by inviting a broader pool of prospective students to apply and be evaluated under comprehensive review, campuses can make a better and fairer determination of academic merit by looking at all of the student’s achievements in the context of their particular schools and personal circumstances. “Under ETR,” Brown expressed, “‘eligibility’ will no longer operate to keep students out for trivial reasons. Instead, it invites a broader range of students to apply and make their best case, signaling that UC admission should be granted to those who demonstrate high achievement and make the most of their educational opportunities – however great or limited those opportunities may have been.”


Some Assembly members still expressed reservations during the Assembly meeting, however. Some worried that the 9x9 referral structure seemed too drastic a change. Others expressed concern that the proportions of under-represented groups in the 9x9 guaranteed referral pool would be reduced compared to the 12.5x5, and still others worried the proposal will force UC to accept a greater number of less prepared students and will exclude good or very good students from UC’s top feeder schools who are not in the top 9% of those schools.


Rashid counters that the proposal helps enhance student quality because it will allow campuses to consider deserving candidates outside the current pool of those deemed “eligible.” He says UC will likely receive additional applications, and among those newly-visible students will be substantial numbers of academically strong candidates deserving of UC admission. The overall academic qualifications of the entering freshman class thereby stands to go up, riding on the quality of campus selection processes.


Rashid says less than 1% of students are admitted to UC though the referral guarantee, and very few good students from top feeder high schools use or benefit from that guarantee. Campuses, not the guarantee, admit the overwhelming majority of students, and ETR would not change that. Most students from top schools will still be ETR, will still apply, and will still be admitted to individual campuses on the basis of their records. It will have little or no impact on these students.


“The comprehensive-review selection processes developed by the Senate admissions committees on the campuses are very effective at determining merit,” says Professor Rashid. “All available data suggest that both quality and diversity will be enhanced with the ETR mechanism. UC’s applicant pools will expand somewhat, and will contain some truly excellent students that were previously invisible to UC. Students will benefit because their potential to succeed at UC is assessed as accurately as possible. Campuses will benefit because all truly deserving students remain visible to their selection processes.”


He says data show that the current policy tends to differentially disenfranchise students from traditionally underrepresented groups as well as those from low-income and first-generation-college-going background. One of BOARS’ objectives is to increase geographic and racial/ethnic representation in the University within current legal parameters. To this end, he says BOARS believes the 12.5x5 index is the optimal solution, based on the best data available, but the other elements of the proposal are in fact the more critical to the overall soundness of UC freshman admissions. He points out though, that the agreed-upon guarantee referral structure more than doubles the ELC percentage, helping UC reach qualified students in every school in the state.


“Over the long run, the ETR pathway is the element that will position UC to achieve far more than it would otherwise with respect to equity in access at the freshman level,” says Rashid.


Professor Brown says he anticipates that The Regents will accept the Senate’s recommendation. “The Regents have delegated the responsibility of determining the conditions of admission to the Academic Senate because they expect admissions policy to be grounded in sound educational philosophy, analytical data, and logical reasoning of the highest order. From BOARS original proposal, through two Academic Senate reviews, through Council debate, and, finally, through Academic Assembly debate, I saw the faculty on all sides of the issue operate with the excellence worthy of that responsibility and The Regents’ trust.”



- Michael LaBriola