This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Campus explains holistic review admissions process

Beginning with the fall 2007 freshman class, the UCLA faculty adopted the "holistic" review process — which has been in use at the University of California, Berkeley, for many years and also is used at many Ivy League institutions — in which applicants are assessed in terms of the full range of their academic and personal achievements, viewed in the context of the opportunities and challenges each has encountered.

The UCLA Academic Senate made the change because the faculty believed a more individualized and qualitative assessment of each applicant's entire application would be fairer and would better achieve the UC Regents' goal of comprehensive review.

Recently, a faculty member who was a member of UCLA's Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools criticized the holistic review process. Kevin Reed, UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs, who advises the chancellor's admissions work group, was asked to explain some of the issues involved for UCLA.

Does UCLA take race into account in admissions?

No. University of California policy and the state constitution forbid UCLA from discriminating against, or granting preference to, candidates on the basis of race or ethnicity — or sex, or national origin. All admissions officials and reviewers receive explicit instructions that race and ethnicity are to play no role in their rankings of candidates. While race does not play a role in any individual admissions decision, UCLA can and must take steps to ensure that its admissions process overall works in such a way that exceptional candidates from all of California's racial and ethnic groups have a fair chance at admission. Student diversity is a compelling interest at UCLA. It contributes to a rich and stimulating learning environment, one that best prepares leaders-in-the-making for the challenges and opportunities of California, the nation and beyond. For this reason, UCLA reviews its admissions policies regularly to ensure that it does not improperly exclude students who have the qualities necessary to succeed at UCLA.

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Read UC Board of Regents Chairman Richard C. Blum's statement on UCLA admissions.

What is the holistic review process that has been in effect since the 2006–07 academic year?

Holistic review is a process in which readers rank candidates for admission on the basis of a review of a candidate's entire application. Under the prior system for the admission of undergraduates, two readers assessed separate components of each application — one for academic review and one for personal achievement and life challenges. Scores were then combined for a final rank. Under that system, no single reviewer was able to assess a candidate as a whole — for example, to assess personal achievements and academic accomplishments in light of an individual’s personal circumstances. Under the holistic model, the review of each application is an integrated process that considers the full record of a student’s achievements and experiences, as well as the challenges faced, and provides a more carefully individualized and qualitative assessment. Further, each application is reviewed in its entirety by at least two readers, and the overall score is averaged. To ensure consistency and fairness, if there are meaningful discrepancies in the rankings given by the two reviewers, the application is further reviewed by senior managers within the admissions team.

What is the goal of the holistic review?

The holistic admissions process attempts to assess candidates as they really are — as comprehensive individuals with varying assemblages of competencies and experiences that make it more, or less, likely that they will succeed at UCLA. Rather than examining a candidate's academic record or personal achievements in isolation, as occurred under the prior admissions scheme, holistic review reflects multiple readers' thoughtful consideration of the full spectrum of an applicant's qualifications, based on all the evidence provided in the application and viewed in the context of the applicant's academic and personal circumstances and the overall strength of the UCLA applicant pool.

Using a broad concept of merit, readers assess a candidate's ability to succeed at UCLA by reference to the following criteria, which carry no pre-assigned weights:

• The applicant's full record of achievement in college preparatory work in high school
• Personal qualities of the applicant
• Likely contributions to the intellectual and cultural vitality of the campus
• Performance on standardized tests
• Achievement in academic enrichment programs
• Other evidence of achievement
• Opportunities
• Challenges

When did UCLA begin considering putting into place the holistic review process? Why was it implemented when reviewing applications for admission for the fall 2007 freshman class?

Each year, UCLA's admissions process is subjected to review and adjustment by the faculty Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools. The change to holistic review was the most sweeping reform since the comprehensive review process was adopted by the University of California Board of Regents five years prior, ending a practice of allowing a portion of students to be admitted solely on academic criteria.

The faculty admissions committee had been studying the possibility of a change to a holistic approach for more than a year. The shocking decline in 2006 in the number of African American high school students offered admission to UCLA — combined with the small number of African American students who elected to attend the university — became a catalyst for consideration of changes in the admissions process in 2006, a change that was strongly encouraged by the UCLA administration, including then–Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams. The change was implemented in an attempt to improve the fairness and accuracy of the admissions process in selecting those most likely to succeed at UCLA. It was not designed to increase the number of African Americans admitted as freshmen, but the very low numbers of African Americans admitted under the prior system caused UCLA to question whether the admissions process in place at the time served UCLA's compelling interest in ensuring equal opportunity.

Does any other university use holistic review? Why?

UC Berkeley has used a holistic admissions process for more than five years. Additionally, numerous elite private universities — including Ivy League universities, Stanford and the University of Southern California — have used holistic admissions processes similar to those of UCLA and UC Berkeley for many years. Each of these institutions, including UCLA, could likely fill each of their incoming freshman classes with applicants with near-perfect standardized test scores and grade-point averages Yet all of these institutions, including UCLA, understand that the ability to succeed in college depends on much more than test scores or grade-point averages measured in isolation, so they use admissions processes that examine the total candidate and his or her achievements in the context of the opportunities they have been given.

Is there a difference in the way minority students who are applying to UCLA are considered by readers?

No. Data concerning the race of individual applicants are not provided to the readers. While it is possible for applicants, in their personal statements, to self-identify their race and ethnicity, all readers are expressly instructed to disregard such factors in their rankings. Furthermore, the use of multiple readers for each application, combined with senior-level review whenever two raters’ assessments vary widely, is intended as a protection against improper bias.

Isn't it possible for readers to collude when considering the admission of a particular student? What do you do to make sure that doesn't happen?

No. The use of multiple, randomly assigned readers (in a pool of more than 150 readers), combined with high-level review in the case of substantial rating disparity, prevents collusion.

How do you explain the 100% increase in the number of African Americans who were accepted as freshmen between fall 2006 — before holistic review — and fall 2007, when holistic review was put in place?

Holistic review is based on a reader looking at all relevant information — academic and non-academic — at the same time as he or she evaluates and scores an applicant. UCLA's previous system did not allow readers to interpret academic results in the full context of experiences and challenges facing the applicant. When all factors are considered at the same time, it is likely that the challenges and opportunities faced by many African American applicants, as well as those applicants from all other groups, were assessed more fully, while the prior system’s segmented approach created barriers to admission that disproportionately affected African American applicants. The change in African American admits from 2006 to 2007 was very similar to that experienced by the UC Berkeley after it instituted the holistic process more than five years ago. This issue will be addressed in a formal study of the holistic review process undertaken by UCLA.

As African American admissions have increased, admissions for other ethnic groups, especially Asians, have decreased. Why is this? What are you doing about it?

Year-to-year fluctuations in the demographic composition of the applicant pool are normal, while the size of the admitted pool has been quite stable in recent years. So an increase in the number of African Americans admitted to UCLA's freshman class would automatically mean a reduction in students admitted from other ethnic or racial groups. UCLA does not attempt to control the outcome of the admissions process based on race — doing so would not be legal. UCLA is commissioning a comprehensive review of its holistic admissions process and will, in that review, examine whether the system has created any unlawful barriers to Asian student admissions.

What has been the effect of holistic review on the average (fully weighted) grade-point average of admitted freshmen?

There has been a slight increase in the average fully weighted grade-point average of freshman since the holistic review process was put in place — from 4.14 in 2006 to 4.17 in 2007. The average fully weighted GPA of those who have stated their intent to register for fall 2008 is 4.22.

Why not provide the 1,000 applications (500 from the 2007–08 academic year and 500 from the 2008–09 academic year) to the faculty member who requested them?

Federal and state privacy laws, as well as policies established by the University of California system, protect applicants from the release of private and personally identifiable information outside the university system. That is why UCLA has consistently offered to have the faculty member participate in a UCLA-sponsored study. UCLA can lawfully access the private information, so long as it does not publish personally identifiable information concerning the applicants, and the professor can participate in the design of the study to ensure that his suspicions are addressed.

Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who led the campaign on behalf of Proposition 209 — which prohibits the consideration of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education and public contracting — recently suggested that students not be allowed to reveal their race in their applications and said the university should disqualify any student who does that. Why wouldn't UCLA do this in order to level the playing field?

Because to do so would be unfair and potentially illegal. Applicants for admission are entitled to describe who they are and the things they have accomplished. Under Mr. Connerly's logic, a student would potentially be disqualified for stating in the application that she was a member of the women's tennis team or an officer in a local chapter of B'nai B'rith, or that he developed spiritually by visiting his parents' birthplace in Vietnam. No fair or workable admissions process could force applicants to suppress information about themselves that might reveal their gender, religion, race or ethnicity.

Given that it is required by law that the privacy of applicants be protected, isn't it enough to simply redact the names of applicants for the purposes of the study that the faculty member wants to do?

No. UCLA’s application — like the applications of most universities — asks students to describe themselves and why they are unique, making it easy in most instances to identify a student readily even if his or her name is masked. For example, if a student identifies herself in the application as captain of her high school basketball team or valedictorian of his class or president of the student body, the identity of the applicant could be easily known.

If privacy is the issue, why have some people been allowed to look at UC applications?

The university always has the ability to look at UCLA applications for legitimate university purposes. In every instance of which we are aware of a researcher accessing protected information, it was done under the umbrella of university-sponsored research. UCLA is unaware of any instance in which raw applications (as opposed to aggregate data) have been provided to researchers for their own research (as opposed to university-sponsored research).

The faculty member who criticized the holistic review process at UCLA said he favors racial preferences that would, in his words, "aid racial groups who have faced greater challenges and suffered past discrimination — as long as the preferences are executed transparently and within the limits of the law." [The italics are his.] Why not simply do that, rather than something like holistic review?

We disagree that the law would sanction a process that contains preferences for applicants on the basis of race, no matter how "transparent." Holistic review, on the other hand, assists the university in identifying the potential in any applicant, regardless of race or ethnicity, who may have demonstrated an ability to excel despite hardship. Some hardships may, in today's society, be correlated with race and ethnicity (access to schools with experienced teachers and a broad array of Advanced Placement courses, for example), but the holistic admissions process focuses properly on the ability to succeed as demonstrated by a history of overcoming obstacles, as opposed to race or ethnicity.

The faculty member suggested several measures that would improve diversity and be consistent with Proposition 209, including utilizing life challenges as an official factor in granting admission, granting automatic admission to students who finish in the top 1 percent of their high school class, and increasing the number of transfer students who are admitted. Why not do these things instead of holistic review?

Holistic review incorporates many of these strategies but does so in a comprehensive, as opposed to formulaic, way. These issues are examined annually by UCLA through the admissions committee from which the faculty member resigned and, undoubtedly, will continue to be examined.

About one-fourth of the application readers hired by UCLA for the 2007–08 review process were African American, while only about 5% of applicants were African American. Doesn't the high percentage of African American readers open the door to a conflict of interest?

UCLA was fortunate that the crisis in African American admissions that came to a head in 2006 inspired a commitment by talented African American individuals to become readers. Our admissions team was, and remains, open to all with the skills necessary to serve the admissions process, and we reject our critics' suggestion that we should use racial quotas in hiring readers. We have great confidence that all of our readers, regardless of race or ethnicity, are highly skilled, carefully trained and are as committed to a fair review of each application as their white, Asian or Latino colleagues.

You say that you are now moving forward with a study of the holistic review process at UCLA, although originally you had hoped to defer a study until the university had at least four or five years experience with it. Why did you move it forward? Will the concerns expressed by the faculty member be addressed?

UCLA remains convinced that the best study of any admissions process is one that answers the question: Did our admissions process correctly identify those students who were prepared to excel at UCLA? And UCLA is convinced that it is impossible to answer that question without measurements of the admitted students' performance over time. The professor, however, has raised the subsidiary question of whether race illegally played a role in admissions decisions at UCLA since we moved to a holistic system. Because of the important public policy implications of this question, we are committed to an objective study that attempts to answer that question for the faculty member and the UCLA community at large.

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