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New Admission Policy: Gaining a Fuller Picture

by Eric Price, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 4, 1998

The new undergraduate admission policy, established by the Academic Senate’s Committee on Admissions, Enrollment and Preparatory Education (AE&PE), is the most recent and dramatic step in Berkeley’s effort to assess all potential new students as individuals.

The key changes the committee put into place were not in themselves the product of political and legal pressure, according to Jenny Franchot, the associate professor of English who has chaired the AE&PE Committee since 1995. In fact, they address long-existing concerns expressed by both faculty and admissions office staff that the way applicants had been academically evaluated in the past was increasingly less useful for Berkeley’s application pool.

Reasons for Broader Assessment

The previous admissions policy depended heavily on formulae that assigned fixed weights to academic accomplishments. The Academic Index Score (AIS), computed from a combination of GPA and SAT scores, for example, was the sole determinant for half of all students admitted.

“The former Academic Index Score,” explained Franchot, “paid no attention to what curriculum was actually offered in a high school, to the differences between one student’s use of a curriculum and another’s, to rising and falling grade patterns, or to the actual rigor of the courses taken. Instead, the old AIS only measured two things: GPA and standardized test scores.”

Traditional academic measures remain crucial to the process of ranking students – Franchot’s committee wouldn’t have it any other way.

Both Berkeley faculty and administrators felt that the relative strengths and weaknesses of a candidate were not being sufficiently evaluated simply by calculating numbers.

But committee members believe that expanded academic assessment and the highly individualized approach now being taken with each of the nearly 30,000 applications is more thorough.

The new policy will also give the UC admissions office staff something they’ve asked for each year, as their decisions have become more selective and difficult: more information about the applicants as individuals.

Both Berkeley faculty and administrators felt that the relative strengths and weaknesses of a candidate were not being sufficiently evaluated simply by calculating numbers. This method, for example, ignored grade inflation at some high schools, led to overemphasizing the aggregate SAT score, and didn’t provide any way to select among highly achieving students with very similar Academic Index Scores.

“The prior AE&PE committee was already moving in the direction of abandoning the Academic Index Score, and increasing the number of essays read,” said Franchot, an expert in early American literature.

“We need to have an admissions policy that can find the best students, ones who react to their context, be it privileged or underprivileged, in intellectually impressive ways,” she said.

David Forsyth, an associate professor of computer science, who, like Franchot, has been on the AE&PE Committee since 1995, participated from start to finish in creating the new policy.

“If SP1 and 209 had not appeared,” pointed out Forsyth, “we still would have made these changes. We might have gone slower, perhaps, but there was a real sense on the committee that you can’t make decisions just by adding up a bunch of numbers.”

Professor of Political Science Jack Citrin, another long-time committee member, added that “the most important change is the enhanced assessment of academic achievement, which must remain the single most important element in the selection process.”

Yet, according to Citrin, the new admissions policy also gives an opportunity to characterize an applicant as “an amalgam of academic ability, character and extracurricular accomplishments.”

Forsyth put it a different way: “Look, this is a tough place for an undergraduate.” In his computer science class of 450 students, he noted, those students can walk up to him and assert themselves stand a better chance of success.

“In a comprehensive look at a file,” he said, “you can see such things.”

The Committee’s Philosophy

The challenges Franchot and her committee faced were complicated. They had to enrich the way academic evaluations were made by the admissions staff, and, at the same time, remove the fixed preferences that had historically been used to rank applicants.

How did they meet this challenge?

“We abandoned altogether the fundamental concept of fixed weights for attributes,” Franchot explained. “The former admissions policy gave you points, on the one hand, for your GPA and SAT scores and, on the other hand, incorporated fixed weights for specific factors such as rural status, disability or race.

“In place of that approach, we are saying that, at Berkeley, we will evaluate students individually according to all they have achieved in the context in which they have done it.”

Faculty Involvement

Although the new policy is formally in place for the freshman class of fall 1998, important tasks still remain.

One is to continue informing faculty throughout campus about the new policy.

Franchot said that her work as AE&PE Committee chair “is partly to initiate and sustain an open and substantial conversation with campus faculty in order to assure that faculty understand what individual assessment is all about.”

She is optimistic that faculty can learn about and contribute to the new policy in a variety of ways. These could include future service on the AE&PE Committee – which can include substantial involvement with evaluation of applicants as well as work at the level of policy. Faculty can also participate in Academic Senate discussions and, more generally, work in high school academic outreach and mentoring programs.

At the end of the semester, the committee will design an independent review of the entire process, looking carefully at how the entering class is and is not different from the one likely to have been admitted under the former system.

The Reading of Files

Another vital aspect of the new admissions policy is sharing faculty values with the professional admissions staff, who are now reading individual applications.

Said Franchot: “Committee members and I currently are involved in the training of admission readers, participating in the weekly ‘norming’ meetings and practicing admission decisions ourselves.”

In this way, “our professional reading staff is in touch with the underlying philosophy, intentions and aims of the Senate,” said Franchot. Her challenge for the future is to refine how faculty will remain involved in subsequent years.

Committee member Forsyth said plainly that “faculty values must be reflected in the reading process. This means an enormous amount of work, but a greater opportunity for faculty to communicate what they value in a student.”

A devoted participant in the training sessions, Forsyth noted that he has “aggressively been saying what I thought was good or not that good.”

In Chair Franchot’s view, however, “the process is far from a one-way street.”

“It has served to educate the faculty about the complexity of admissions,” she said. “Particularly, faculty quickly learn how hard it is to choose among the enormous number of highly qualified applicants, and how hard the readers work to establish consensus amongst themselves about scores. The spirit of attentiveness and openness to faculty input has been a terrific thing.”

Committee on Admissions, Enrollment and Preparatory Education (AE&PE) of the Academic Senate

  • Associate Professor Jenny Franchot, English, Chair
  • Professor Calvin Moore, Mathematics
  • Associate Professor David Forsyth, Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences
  • Professor Jack Citrin, Political Science
  • Professor Gene Rochlin, Energy and Resources Group
  • Associate Professor Ann Smock, French
  • Professor Richard Calendar, Molecular and Cell Biology

Student Members:

  • Casey Uwaezuoke, sophomore, major undeclared
  • Kay Fernandez, junior, social welfare

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