April 05, 2023
Last week, millions of college acceptances and rejections were sent out to high school seniors. While the 2023 data won’t be available for some time, using 2022 numbers we can now begin to assess the impact of 2020’s dual body blows to higher education: the “racial reckoning” and the Covid-excused Not So Great Reset in which standards were lowered and policies made lazier and stupider.
I’ll focus on the 2022 admissions statistics for the most famous public college system, the ten-campus University of California.
In America, it’s extremely difficult to create a prestigious new college from scratch (for example, Harvard and Yale are, between them, 708 years old). But postwar California built a half-dozen huge new campuses in fine locations and quickly stocked them with strong students by admitting applicants based on a simple metric combining high school GPA with standardized test scores.
The UC schools provided a somewhat brusque but effective education to undergraduates. In turn, UC graduates helped make California the world’s technology leader.
On a more mundane level, a huge number of middle-class Californians got a good start in life without debt. For example, my dentist’s parents probably paid no more than a few thousand dollars in tuition for him all the way through UCLA dental school.
But what UC could never do was equalize the performance of the state’s four main races. So, the public campuses adopted massive affirmative-action benefits for blacks and the burgeoning Latino population.
Voters, however, were not amused by all the racial discrimination: In 1996, they banned affirmative action in state government institutions by a vote of 55–45.
UC bureaucrats quickly began cheating, but were still annoyed by Proposition 209. So, California’s establishment, assuming that most of the Bad Whites who had voted against quotas had left for Idaho, put an initiative to overturn the ban on affirmative action on the 2020 ballot. Surely, with huge numbers of California Democrats turning out to vote against Trump, white supremacist colorblind insistence upon equal protection of the laws would finally be dispatched to the ash heap of the moral universe.
But race preferences were rejected 57–43, an even larger margin than in 1996.
Meanwhile, George Floyd’s death had driven elites insane.
So, in November 2021, the politically appointed regents of the giant University of California system rejected the advice of the faculty senate’s task force experts and banned college entrance exams. In the name of racial equity, the ten UC campuses (including Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego) weren’t just going “test optional” (in which applicants with bad scores can refuse to submit them), they were permanently banning all applicants from sending in test scores.
The regents’ decision spat upon the report of UC social science professors who had statistically determined that the use of the SAT or ACT college admission tests was crucial to choosing a qualified freshman class. Remarkably, test scores turned out to be an even more accurate predictor of college grade point average than is high school GPA.
And, contrary to conventional wisdom, the accuracy of the SAT at predicting graduation rates and final college grades was even better for nonwhites than for whites.
The reason standardized tests are so important is because California’s countless high schools are extremely diverse, not just in student ethnicity but also in brainpower and grading rigor. While California’s schools and students are typically below national averages, some schools are among the most distinguished in the country.
According to the UC faculty’s study, the SAT proves extremely useful in distinguishing between, say, a 3.8 GPA at a hard high school and a 3.8 at an easy one.
Dumping the SAT caused a huge flood of incremental applications to UC schools from kids who would never have stood a chance of getting in anywhere other than depressing UC Merced back when admissions departments did a more thorough job of vetting applicants.
How have the UC schools responded?
Well, each UC school is in charge of making its own decisions. But an Orange County man named Steve Miller recently pointed out that UC San Diego (traditionally, the third most prestigious UC school) clearly switched from spring 2020 to spring 2022 to placing a big thumb on the scale to benefit applicants from heavily Hispanic schools and discriminating against kids from heavily Asian schools.
I took a look at UC’s website of admissions data by race and high school for all the public schools in huge Los Angeles County (population: 10 million). I sorted the high schools into two groups: upscale and downscale. I defined “upscale” as high schools where the majority of applications to UC San Diego come from Asians and whites and “downscale” as ones where most applicants are Hispanics and blacks.
Yes, I realize it sounds crass to define “good schools” so bluntly, but, fundamentally, that’s what everybody means. (Note that Los Angeles County is expensive, so its Asian and white kids are pretty smart.)
Back in spring 2020 (the Before Times), UCSD accepted 36.2 percent of applicants from upscale Los Angeles County public schools compared to 32.5 percent from downscale public schools. Obviously, students at upscale public schools are better on average than at downscale public schools, so it only makes sense that a higher percentage made the cut at UCSD.
But in 2022, only 22.3 percent of applications from the better public high schools were being accepted by UCSD compared with 29.5 percent from the worse schools, the reverse of what most every other college in America did before the confused 2020s.
For example, Arcadia HS typically leads Los Angeles County public schools in National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, with Arcadia educating 660 over the past 28 years.
Arcadia was a pleasant but nondescript suburban municipality east of Pasadena where my cousins lived. In the late 20th century, Chinese millionaires decided to take over Arcadia and transform the school district into their Confucian dream for getting their kids into prestigious California public colleges. Arcadia HS is now more than two-thirds Asian.
Note that upper-middle-class white parents tend to resignedly assume that, what with all the affirmative action in the University of California, they’ll just have to shell out a quarter of a million bucks to send their kid to some moderately well-known private college in Pennsylvania. I mean, what else are they going to do? Publicly complain about the state constitution being violated? Oh, dear, that sounds kind of racist…
On the other hand, Chinese immigrant parents generally assume that while they’ve only been paying taxes in America for a few years, their kids deserve a taxpayer-subsidized education at UC San Diego in exquisite La Jolla.
So, in 2020, 366 Arcadia HS seniors (309 of them Asian) applied to UCSD, and 128 got in (35 percent). In 2022, 388 applied but only 50 were accepted (13 percent).
In contrast, consider a couple of all-Hispanic high schools depicted in late-1980s Lou Diamond Phillips movies: Garfield HS, where cholo Angel takes calculus from Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, and San Fernando HS, where Ritchie Valens meets Donna in La Bamba.
Garfield had 33 out of 106 applicants (31 percent) accepted in 2020, but 45 out of 96 (47 percent) in 2022. San Fernando saw 16 out of 47 (34 percent) admitted in 2020, but 43 out of 72 last year (60 percent).
Overall, in the spring of 2020, 2,878 students from majority Asian and white L.A. County public schools were accepted by UCSD. This dropped to 2,199 in 2022 (down 24 percent).
In contrast, 1,601 applicants from majority black and Hispanic schools were accepted in 2020, but that exploded to 5,130 last spring (up 215 percent).
How’d they make room for all these extra students from unchallenging public schools? Beside squeezing applicants from the better public schools, they crushed California’s private school applicants (acceptances down 41 percent), out-of-staters (down 24 percent), and internationals (down 25 percent).
By the way, all these increasingly disfavored groups pay more in tuition than downscale public high school students: In-state tuition is $14,700, out-of-state tuition $44,454, and there’s no financial aid for foreigners. Maybe UC could afford this when the Covid bailout money was flooding from Washington to Sacramento, but how’s this going to work financially going forward?
And how many of this sudden surge of students from lousy schools who got in solely due to banning the SAT are going to flunk out of UCSD? Or is UCSD intending to drastically lower its standards? Or does it not have a plan at all because it’s racist to understand how the world works?
Ironically, emphasizing GPA uber alles has been bad for middle-class black and Hispanic families who strove to get their kids into better schools, where they seldom stand out academically but at least can escape pressure to join gangs. In 2022, only 2.6 percent of black applicants to UCSD from affluent public high schools were accepted, down from an already miserable 6.1 percent in 2020. In contrast, 11.6 percent of black applicants from poor schools got in.
Among Hispanics in better schools, the acceptance rate fell from 19.4 percent to 15.1 percent, whereas 28.3 percent of downscale Hispanics were accepted in 2022.
In contrast to UCSD’s new strategy, private colleges like Harvard love affluent black and (to a lesser extent) Latino applicants and instead worry about whether kids from the hood can make the big jump.
Ironically, poorer whites and Asians have been big winners from eliminating the SAT. In 2020, only 80 whites at downscale L.A. County public schools were accepted by UCSD compared to 536 in 2022. Poorer Asians accepted surged from 310 to 1601.
So, what’s going on? Well, it should have been predictable. By junking the SAT, UCSD is condemning itself to using merely GPA and class rank to select students, so it’s missing out on huge numbers of the better students at the better schools.
Is this wise? Well, it’s considered in terrible taste to notice the inevitable consequences of the racial reckoning, so nobody is giving it much thought.
What’s next after this massive unforced error in admissions policy? I don’t know, but from KQED a year ago:
University of California Departments Consider Ditching Letter-Grade System for New Students
Inside some University of California academic departments and colleges, an atypical idea is gaining steam: deemphasizing, or even ditching, the A–F grading system and rethinking how to assess student learning.
The future looks dumber and shoddier.