A new admissions policy set to take effect at the University of California system in three years is raising fears among Asian-Americans that it will reduce their numbers on campus, where they account for a remarkable 40 percent of all undergraduates.
University officials say the new standards — the biggest change in UC admissions since 1960 — are intended to widen the pool of high school applicants and make the process more fair.
But Asian-American advocates, parents and lawmakers are angrily calling on the university to rescind the policy, which will apply at all nine of the system's undergraduate campuses.
They point to a UC projection that said the new standards would sharply reduce Asian-American admissions while resulting in little change for blacks and Hispanics, and a big gain for white students.
"I like to call it affirmative action for whites," said Ling-chi Wang, a retired professor at UC Berkeley. "I think it's extremely unfair to Asian-Americans on the one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other."
Asian-Americans are the single largest ethnic group among UC's 173,000 undergraduates. In 2008, they accounted for 40 percent at UCLA and 43 percent at UC Berkeley — the two most selective campuses in the UC system — as well as 50 percent at UC San Diego and 54 percent at UC Irvine.
Asian-Americans are about 12 percent of California's population and 4 percent of the U.S. population overall.
The new policy, approved unanimously by the UC Board of Regents in February, will greatly expand the applicant pool, eliminate the requirement that applicants take two SAT subject tests and reduce the number of students guaranteed admission based on grades and test scores alone. It takes effect for the freshman class of fall 2012.
President defends policy
Some Asian-Americans have charged that the university is trying to reduce Asian-American enrollment. Others say that may not be the intent, but it will be the result.
UC officials adamantly deny the intent is to increase racial diversity, and reject allegations the policy is an attempt to circumvent a 1996 voter-approved ban on affirmative action.
"The primary goal is fairness and eliminating barriers that seem unnecessary," UC President Mark Yudof said. "It means that if you're a parent out there, more of your sons' and daughters' files will be reviewed."
Yudof and other officials disputed the internal study that projected a drop of about 20 percent in Asian-American admissions, saying it is impossible to accurately predict the effects. "This is not Armageddon for Asian-American students," Yudoff said.
At San Francisco's Lowell High School, one of the top public schools in the country, about 70 percent of the students are of Asian descent and more than 40 percent attend UC after graduation.
"If there are Asian-Americans who are qualified and don't get into UC because they're trying to increase diversity, then I think that's unfair," said 16-year-old junior Jessica Peng. "I think that UC is lowering its standards by doing that."
Doug Chan, who has a teenage son at Lowell, said: "Parents are very skeptical and suspicious that this is yet another attempt to move the goalposts or change the rules of the game for Asian college applicants."
One of the biggest changes is scrapping the requirement that applicants take two SAT subject tests. UC officials say the tests do little to predict who will succeed at UC, no other public university requires them, and many high-achieving students are disqualified because they do not take them.
The policy also widens the pool of candidates by allowing applications from all students who complete the required high school courses, take the main SAT or ACT exams and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. Under the current policy, students have to rank in the top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates to be eligible.
Students still have to apply to individual campuses, where admissions officers are allowed to consider each applicants' grades, test scores, personal background, extracurricular activities and other factors but not race.
The policy is expected to increase competition for UC admission. This year the university turned away the largest number of students in years after it received a record number of applications and cut freshman enrollment because of the state's budget crisis.
"I'm getting all sorts of e-mails from parents, alumni and donors who are quite upset by the action UC took," said state Assemblyman Ted Lieu, chairman of the Legislature's 11-member Asian-American caucus.