Jewish World Review August 9, 2002 / 1 Elul, 5762

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

Privileged to suffer | Ever since California voters banned racial preferences in college admissions to state schools in 1996, university administrators have been trying to come up with a way to boost their minority admissions. Now, University of California administrators think they've found a solution: Give extra points to students who've survived some special hardship. The idea is that black and Hispanic applicants will be more likely to have overcome poverty, discrimination, family breakdown, crime-infested neighborhoods, overcrowding and a host of other barriers to academic success. If the university gives them extra points for having beat the odds, it will help make up for lower average grades and test scores among black and Hispanic applicants.

In principle, there's nothing wrong with a school considering hardship in its admissions decisions, providing the policy really is race neutral. If a student has truly overcome real adversity, it says something about his character and determination that can be an important indicator of future success, so long as he applies these same qualities to his school work. I've seen firsthand examples of students who did just that.

In the early 1990s, I was chairman of the National Commission on Migrant Education and traveled the country visiting with students whose parents were migrant farm workers. I was always impressed with how hard these kids worked to prevail, despite daunting circumstances. Many of them changed schools two or three times each year, lived in substandard housing, often with several generations and multiple families under the same roof. Yet they stayed in school and earned decent grades. I'm for giving the benefit of the doubt to any student who's managed to thrive under such conditions.

But it's not clear the University of California's new admission policy is aimed at students like these. Instead, the university seems to be inviting all black and Hispanic students to cast themselves as victims of misfortune, with the explicit purpose of beefing up black and Hispanic enrollment. Even middle class and affluent blacks and Hispanics will search for ways to make their lives appear difficult in the hopes of boosting their admission odds. Meanwhile, some campuses seem to be applying double standards when it comes to judging what constitutes hardship.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that UCLA apparently gave no special "hardship" consideration to one Korean student who helped nurse his mother through a bout with breast cancer, working after school to pay the family's rent, while admitting a Mexican American student who had a nearly identical story but whose test scores were 390 points lower than the Korean student's.

Although the university refused to explain why it treated the applicants differently, it appears race played some role. The school's admissions figures bear this out. With "hardship" consideration now a formal factor in admissions, the numbers of black and Hispanic students have jumped dramatically for the incoming freshman class, with 9 percent more Hispanics and 19 percent more blacks admitted to UCLA in the fall, and fewer whites and Asians.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm, has asked the university for its admissions data to determine whether race is really masquerading as "hardship" in the university's admissions decisions. If so, it would violate the 1996 law that banned racial preferences.

Most of us admire the individual who overcomes great odds, pulls himself up by his bootstraps and succeeds in the face of misfortune. But it shouldn't matter what color the person's skin is.

A few years ago, the film "October Sky" celebrated the story of a group of young West Virginia boys, the sons of coal miners, who built a rocket in the 1950s and won a national science contest and then went on to college, the first in their families to do so. They faced poverty and prejudice, but overcame it. Should we ignore these boys' struggles and achievements just because they were white? If the University of California is really interested in rewarding character in its admissions policy, it shouldn't treat hardship differently depending on the race of the applicant.

Linda Chavez serves on the board of directors of ABM Industries, Inc., a publicly held company.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate