Although he understands the value of diversity, Engineering senior Rich Nam said he believes the University’s admissions policies create an unfair advantage for students belonging to an underrepresented minority group.
“It’s going to cut out people more qualified,” Nam said.
Race is one criterion in the points systems the undergraduate admissions office uses to evaluate applicants to the University.
The points system used by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts is a selection index of 150 points. The most controversial part of the system is the 20 points applicants receive if they belong to an underrepresented minority group.
LSA’s use of race will be challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court on April 1 during oral arguments in Gratz v. Bollinger.
The University maintains that the point systems used for determining undergraduate admissions take seriously the belief that diversity is a compelling interest in higher education and that it accepts only qualified students through a balanced system that considers many factors.
“Taken as a whole, it works very well in accomplishing what we need to accomplish in order to fulfill our educational mission,” University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said. “No matter what happens, there are going to be a lot of qualified students who won’t get in.”
The University has been using race as a factor in admissions since the first Black Action Movement protests in 1970, although current officials say there are no records of what admissions policies the University implemented. After an eight-day class strike, University President Robben Fleming agreed with BAM leaders to have a 10 percent minority enrollment by the 1973-1974 academic year.
Despite promises and more protests, the University would not rise above these numbers until the late 1980s and early 1990s when University President James Duderstadt initiated the Michigan Mandate, a multi-point program providing a more defined strategy for improving the racial climate on campus.
It was around this time that the policies of race-conscious admissions become more clearly defined.
From 1995 through 1998, the University used a complex grid system, that compared grade point averages, geographical location, standardized test scores and other factors. All of the factors had separate grids for minority applicants and non-minority applicants, both in state and out-of-state. Although the grids were similar to the current point system, the University desired to have a neater and more straightforward system.
“At the end of the day, it’s trying to be more quantifiable,” Peterson said.
As it was, in the December 2000 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan, the grid system was ruled unconstitutional because of it’s setup. Duggan determined it reserved a number of seats for minority applicants, creating a quota.
“It is undisputed that from 1995 through 1997, the LSA used facially different grids and action codes based solely upon an applicant’s race. Under these differing grids, a certain group of non-preferred applicants were automatically excluded from competing for a seat in the class without any type of individualized counselor review solely on account of their race,” Duggan wrote.
Breaking it down
The current LSA system, established in 1997 and first used in the fall of that year to determine the Class of 2002, has a requirement of 100 points out of 150 for admittance. One hundred and ten of those points are based solely on academic factors. An applicant’s GPA is recomputed by the University using college preparatory classes from the 10th and 11th grades. An applicant receives anywhere from 40 to 80 points for his or her GPA.
But since school curriculums vary in their level of rigor, an applicant gets up to 10 points based on their school’s academic strength. This number is determined by admissions counselors who are assigned to certain parts of the country and know the schools they work with very well. The counselors base the school factor on the number of Advanced Placement or International Bacculerate classes offered, the percentage of students going to college and school’s average SAT I/ACT scores.
“An A in one school might not mean an A in another school,” Peterson said.
A student also receives a range of negative four to eight points based on the curriculum factor, which judges the extent to which a student challenged themselves during their high school career. For example, if a student did not take any AP classes in a school that offers 15, points could be deducted from his or her score.
“It is an individual measure of how much a student has challenged himself,” Peterson said.
LSA sophomore Shilpa Murthy said this is where it is beneficial for the admissions policies to benefit people who have a socio-economic disadvantage.
“They’re not going to have the same number of good teachers or AP courses,” she said.
The final part of the academic factors is standardized testing, based on a student’s SAT or ACT score. The admissions counselor gives students up to 12 points in this area and the criteria differs slightly for students applying to the School of Engineering, where math scores are looked at more closely.
The other side of the selection index consists of 53 points called “soft” factors, although no applicant can receive more than 40. The first factor is geography. All Michigan residents receive 10 points, and people coming from certain underrepresented Michigan counties – such as Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta in the northern part of the state – receive an extra six points. Applicants from underrepresented states – such as Kansas, West Virginia and Rhode Island – receive two points. Peterson said the selected areas were decided by looking over the country as a whole and selecting areas from where the University does not gain many students.
“If you look across a population by chance, you would expect to get a certain number of students,” Peterson said.
An applicant receives four points if a parent or stepparent is an alumnus, or one point if any other immediate relatives attended the University. Murthy said she feels this factor should not determine whether the University admits a student.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with your credentials,” she said. “It’s another business deal.”
A maximum of three points can be given for an essay, five points for personal achievements and five points for community service.
The most debated part of the system is the 20 points received for coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged area, being a member of an underrepresented minority group, being an athlete, or other extenuating circumstances.
When shown the point system and how it works, some students said they saw the importance of using race as a factor, but they thought 20 points was too many for the University to give toward uncontrollable factors.
“I think your essay should be 20 points,” Murthy said, adding that she would like to see race as a 10-point factor. “(The essay) reflects more of who you are … You put time and effort into it.”
“There are the kids who fit these categories but they don’t do as well and they still get in,” Nam said, noting that a student only needs 60 points from the academic factors if they get the full 40 points on “soft” factors.
“I’m surprised that it’s such a large proportion,” LSA junior Scott Showalter said. “Being poor and black is such an advantage.”
But University Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Alger said race is not a huge factor, especially considering the fact that an applicant’s academic credentials comprise 110 points.
“There’s no way that 20 out of 150 is the overwhelming factor,” Alger said. “The Supreme Court is unlikely to fix in on a particular number.”
Some students think a socio-economic disadvantage is more justifiable to gain the upper hand in admissions than being a member of an underrepresented minority group. Murthy noted areas of the Upper Peninsula, which is a very poor area, but largely white.
“They may still have the same potential as people from suburban schools,” she said.
Some students say they want to see the system totally overhauled, whether it is to lessen the use of race in admissions or to not use it all. Showalter said he understands the advantage of diversity, but he feels the system hurts minorities because they then get branded with the stigma that they were accepted because of their race.
“There seems to be a sense of inequality in the point system,” Showalter said. “The system needs to be molded.”
Alger said it is important to remember that diversity is a compelling interest in higher education and the large majority of people applying to the University are still white.
“It is not mathematically possible for those minorities to displace the larger white population,” he said.
Peterson said while the system is thorough, it is not carved in stone and a student does not necessarily need 100 points to get in. She said admissions counselors will often apply discretion with cases by taking into a larger account essays, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities. She added that counselors often will send an application to a committee in order to get more advice on a potential student.
“This is one tool our counselors use, but it’s not the only thing they can use,” Peterson said.