Cal Poly: Poly-morphously Perverse

According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, California State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly)

is widely regarded as the academic star of the California State University system and ranks as one of the best regional universities in the West. It regularly competes for strong students against top UC schools. And it often wins.

Yet by another measure, Cal Poly falls short when compared with other selective California schools: its enrollment of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.

Stuart Silverstein and Doug Smith, the LAT writers, make it clear that they believe Cal Poly doesn’t measure up.

Cal Poly provides a case study in what can happen when a highly selective school, prohibited from considering applicants’ race and ethnicity, makes few allowances for weighing other personal qualities in the admissions process.

Cal Poly admits students largely by the numbers — grade point averages and test scores. Admissions decisions are so automated that applicants don’t even submit an essay, and no one in the admissions office actually reads a typical application.

The contrast with UC schools is striking. They consider such factors as students’ ability to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages and other hardships — a process that can be subjective and lately has proved controversial. Two regents have questioned whether the system amounts to backdoor affirmative action. [Editorial comment: “can be”??]

Carried to its logical conclusion, this approach ultimately questions the very idea of academic selectivity. And, in our legalistic culture, everything is always carried to its logical conclusion.

In January, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued Cal Poly for discrimination, contending that the campus’ heavy reliance on the SAT penalizes Latinos because they generally score lower than whites on the exam.


Victor Viramontes, a defense fund lawyer handling the case, said the university compounds the problem by trumpeting the high average scores its students earn — a factor that could turn off potential Latino and black applicants.

The contrast with the traditional civil rights movement could not be more dramatic. In the old days, i.e., before affirmative action, civil rights advocates opposed what they called “white male discretion” as a cover for discrimination, and they argued for merit, claiming that racial discrimination irrationally excluded many better qualified candidates in favor of less qualified ones only because of skin color. Now civil rights advocates argue for discretion and against merit. Go figure.

Finally, here’s a question for diversiphiles: which higher education system is more diverse: one in which every campus regulates admissions so that they all accurately reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the state; or one in which most campuses do so but one or two continue to stress colorblind merit?

Say What? (19)

  1. bonehead March 21, 2004 at 3:42 pm | | Reply

    As a computer programmer and data analyst at a major California university, it’s nearly impossible for me to spend as much time as I do analyzing and reporting on the racial composition of our faculty and student body, and not begin to wonder, at some point, if there isn’t something at least a little bit racist about that practice itself.

    I read through the LA Times article earlier this morning. One thing that struck me was the way in which the writer devotes one half of one sentence to (almost grudgingly) admitting that, academically, CPSLO is the top school in the CSU system and one of the top schools in the western US, and then, she immediately jumps back over to harping on the racial issue. The underlying philosophy behind this story is that racial diversity is as important as academic excellence, and maybe even more important in cases where a school is not what the Times’ editors consider to be racially diverse enough.

    What really triggered this story was the study that UC Regent John Moores sponsored, which showed that a lot of academically underqualified applicants to the UC system were being admitted, and that a lot of applicants with much better academic scores were not.

    Defenders of racial preferences immediately rushed to defend their admissions policies, and to criticize and even insult Moores for having the audacity to commission the study in the first place. What has followed at the Times is a series of pieces intended to create the impression that race plays no role in UC admissions policies, and to simultaneously emphasize the continued importance of racial diversity at college campuses in general, which is the impetus for today’s article.

    I tend to think that Sandra Day O’Connor got it somewhat right in the Michigan decision. We need to start having a discussion in our society about the extent to which, and the manner in which, we elevate racial diversity as a priority. And she may actually have been right that it could take us another whole generation to reach some form of consensus about that. But before we can even begin to have that discussion, advocates of racial preferences need to understand that that actually is a legitimate discussion to have in the first place.

  2. KRM March 21, 2004 at 6:54 pm | | Reply

    There is no diversity on the campuses. There is only an intellectual echo chamber. Real diversity would be virtually colorblind. Over time, those who want to strive academically would be rewarded through there merit and those that do not would not. If each diveriphile niche does not balance out in proportion to relative population, it is a cultural thing and we should be respecting each culture’s choices.

  3. Gyp March 21, 2004 at 6:58 pm | | Reply

    “…the campus’ heavy reliance on the SAT penalizes Latinos because they generally score lower than whites on the exam.”

    Then why should they fill a quota, or admit more Latinos simply because of their race? Isn’t an SAT change in order, instead? If they claim the tests are biased, then they should UN-bias the tests–not try to “compensate” by admitting people the test is supposedly biased against.

  4. StuartT March 21, 2004 at 7:44 pm | | Reply

    “the campus’ heavy reliance on the SAT penalizes Latinos because they generally score lower than whites on the exam.”

    Yes, and the track team’s heavy reliance on the stopwatch penalizes whites because they generally run slower in the 100m dash. Yet here I sit waiting patiently for the LAT to run a feature story denigrating the use of objective measurements in athletics.

    In fact, as I understand the intricacies of college sports, schools are not inclined to consider “such factors as students’ ability to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages and other hardships” when assigning athletic scholarships and roster positions. Surely this is a gaping oversight.

  5. Nels Nelson March 21, 2004 at 9:44 pm | | Reply

    Stuart, obviously the supposed racial bias of the SAT is actually the result of unequal K-12 education, unequal expectations from parents, unequal access to SAT preparatory courses, etc., all of which have to do with economics rather than race, but I do think there is a problem with making an analogy between SAT scores used for college admissions and track times used for scholarships on track teams.

    The substance and format of the SAT have only a tangential correlation to the skills and methods actually used in the course of learning: reading in a low-pressure and untimed environment, listening, discussing, writing, perseverance, etc. While the SAT might fairly reliably predict college success, as it correlates closely with IQ, it does not serve as such for all students.

    Track times, on the other hand, correlate perfectly with how performance is measured in competition: track times.

    High school grades would serve as a better predictor for college success than would the SAT, as the skills and traits necessary for learning in high school are similar, though perhaps not precisely the same, as those used for learning in college, but the problem of course is that high school education is not standardized. The ‘B’ at one high school is not the same as the ‘B’ at another school, while the SAT taken at each school is the same and is therefore why colleges rely so heavily on it and other standardized exams. However, a time at one school of 10.3 seconds in the 100m is the same as a 10.3 at another school, as the measurement of time and distance are standardized.

    Sorry for the long-windedness. My point is that I think legitimate criticism can be leveled against the overuse of the SAT in college admissions, not because of racial bias but because it does not directly measure the skills used for learning and is not a reliable predictor of success for all students, while the use of track times to award athletic scholarships cannot be similarly criticized as it directly correlates to how success in the sport is measured.

  6. StuartT March 21, 2004 at 11:15 pm | | Reply


    You have inferred an argument that I did not make (at least consciously). Beyond that, I respectfully disagree with you on the merits of your reply.

    1) All of the items you cited in your first paragraph are just as highly correlated to race (if not more so) than economics. As an aside, I don’t know what unequal access to prep courses even means.

    2) I meant in no way to delve into whether or not the SATs involve “skills and methods actually used in the course of learning.” In fact, you summarize my own position quite well: “While the SAT might fairly reliably predict college success, as it correlates closely with IQ, it does not serve as such for all students.” Did I imply otherwise? Keep in mind, we are talking about prep-school criteria for position in the next level; of course college performance speaks for itself, but collegiate decision-makers don’t have crystal-balls. They do, though have imperfect objective measurements. The SAT IS highly predictive of academic success (though not for all), just as the stopwatch IS highly predictive of athletic success (though not for all). Running a 12 second 100m in high school does not ensure that you will blossom to run an 11 second in college (or even an equal 12 second, for that matter), but it certainly is an indication of your potential ability to do so. Likewise with the SAT.

    As I watch the NCAA basketball tournament, I wonder if you think that average points scored in high school would be a legitimate measurement by which coaches could base their recruiting? I do. Though MANY a fantastic prep scorer has gone on to college mediocrity or worse. Recognizing the limitations of this imperfect measurement, should coaches apply more weight to socio-economic factors instead? If so, then the monochromatic NCAA basketball games will likely become more diverse, at the expense of more capable “diverse” players.

    In essence, your point comes to this: stopwatches are perfect predictors, SATs are not. Inasmuch as pre-college measurement tools are concerned, I hope to have presented a fair position to the contrary.

    However, what I am trying (apparently unsuccessfully) to ridicule is the fact that objective measurements are being disavowed in collegiate academics and hewn strongly to in collegiate athletics. And I think we both know why.

  7. Laura March 21, 2004 at 11:29 pm | | Reply

    The public schools around here offer SAT workshops. My kid has taken advantage of one 15-hour course offered free at her school. It’s not true that black kids don’t have access to these courses, in our city at least. Whether they choose to take advantage of them is a different story.

  8. Richard Nieporent March 21, 2004 at 11:37 pm | | Reply

    This business about the overuse of SATs is utter nonsense. Rather than repeating the propaganda issued by these advocacy groups, you should check with an admissions officer to see what criteria is used. If you did, you would find out that surprise, surprise, grades are the most important factor in admissions to a select school. Next they look at the extracurricular activities, i.e., sports, newspaper, student government, etc. The next criterion is the SATs and finally the applications/essays. Each college has a database of high schools that enable them to compare grades from one school to another. The SATs scores are used to help them classify schools that they are not familiar with.

    The first thing that a school does is put the applications into three categories: students who are to be admitted based on their high grades, extracurricular activities and high SATs, students who are rejected based on their low grades, lack of extracurricular activities and low SATs, and the rest of the students. For these students, the applications are read carefully and the SATs are used to attempt to distinguish one applicant from another. The SAT score helps the student if he scores very high and hurts the student if he scores very low, but, contrary to popular belief, it is not the determining factor in admissions.

  9. Nels Nelson March 22, 2004 at 1:14 am | | Reply

    Stuart, by “unequal access to SAT preparatory courses” I meant that those who cannot afford them cannot benefit from expensive preparatory programs. Laura pointed out that there are free classes offered through some schools, but not all schools have the money to offer these, and certainly they are inferior to the one-on-one tutoring which is available to those able to afford it. Just the act of practicing with previous SATs, on one’s own, is of some benefit, yet I see from the College Board’s site that a book of old exams costs $20.

    My argument is not that “stopwatches are perfect predictors, SATs are not,” but rather that while both methods of measurement are objective, stopwatches are perfect evaluators of track ability at the present, as track ability is exactly what they measure, while the SAT is an imperfect evaluator of academic ability at the present, as it measures things which only correlate to academic ability. At the instant that 10.3 in the 100m is posted, the runner being evaluated is, without a doubt, an excellent sprinter. At the moment that 1450 on the SAT is recorded, the person being evaluated is a great test-taker but may be a lousy student. For this reason, the use of stopwatches ensures the admittance of the best track athletes; those who run the 100m in 10.3 seconds prior to college will not be overlooked. They may not all live up to their potential, but at the start they are the most qualified. The use of the SAT, on the other hand, allows for the admittance of some students who, from the very outset, lack the proper academic skills, as well as the overlooking of applicants who do possess those skills yet perform poorly on the SAT.

    My point is not that SATs should be considered any less than they currently are as a factor for admittance, nor that socio-economic, as you put them, factors should be considered more or even at all. I believe the process as it stands – taking into account grades, standardized tests, class ranking, extracurricular activities, etc. – is fairly sound for finding good students. Nor do I care about “diversity.” I’m arguing why the use of track times for admitting athletes cannot be compared to the use of SATs for admitting students.

  10. Michelle Dulak March 22, 2004 at 2:17 am | | Reply


    Taking old SATs, timed, is probably as valuable as an SAT prep course. For this you need: a book of old SATs, a clock, a writing surface, and a pen or pencil. That’s all the SAT prep I ever did.

    You say that “a book of old exams costs $20,” as though that were bad news. What that means in practice is that any kid who can scrape up $20 (or a lot less in practice, because that’s the sort of book that goes straight to the used book store the moment the kid’s done with it) has an SAT prep program in hand.

    There are only two things that factor into anyone’s SAT scores. One is knowing the material, and the other is understanding how the questions work. If you can buy the latter knowledge for twenty bucks, it’s hard to see that there’s a class problem associated with learning how to take the test, though of course there likely is one about learning the material.

  11. Gyp March 22, 2004 at 2:36 am | | Reply

    The SATs may or may not be a very important factor in college admissions, and they may not actually be biased, but the question still stands: Why complain about bias, etc. and do nothing about it? Why merely accept people who “probably” wouldn’t do well on the SATs because of this supposed bias instead of trying to change the tests or alter the college admissions? All I see is people complaining and trying to solve a problem without going to its “source.”

  12. tc March 22, 2004 at 3:47 am | | Reply

    Short answer: because colleges themselves don’t want to. There is no law or government agency that requires the use of the SAT; any college that wanted to could simply drop it – but you won’t see the Harvards and UC Berkeleys of the world drop it anytime soon, because they know that the SAT works, and screening admissions would be a nightmare without it.

  13. Nels Nelson March 22, 2004 at 4:45 am | | Reply

    Michelle, that’s all the preparation for the SAT I did as well, and for people such as you and I, who are fairly knowledgeable of the material and self-motivated, it is probably sufficient.

    But a private SAT tutor offers students much more than just knowledge of how the questions work. They cover all the mathematics necessary for the exam, filling in whatever the student has missed during school. They compile long lists of vocabulary frequently found on the test, including words which the College Board uses to try to trick students (i.e., words which have quite different definitions from common words to which they appear related), and assign them as homework. Tutors teach methods for eliminating incorrect answers, as well as pointing out the (unstated) categories into which the questions always fall and how students can quickly recognize and approach these categories.

    My best friend from high school, whose score went from about a 1300 to a 1540 following six months of private classes, actually learned speed reading techniques from his tutor. To be fair, English was not my friend’s first language and most of the increase came in his verbal score, which he largely attributed to having memorized thousands of vocabulary words. He almost certainly wouldn’t have seen such an increase had he been a native speaker. (Just anecdotally, as an example of what a poor indicator of academic success the test can be, despite that great SAT score my friend did almost no work in college, flunked out after his sophomore year, and now, ten years later, still lives at home with his parents and does part-time telephone computer support.)

    I suppose I’m biased from my own experiences, which include having known other students who saw their scores go up 100 points or more following courses and private tutoring. Certainly anyone who is motivated to do so can take out some vocabulary books from the library. They can create their own SAT study plan, analyzing the practice tests, reviewing old math textbooks, and reading the newspaper each day. Most importantly, they can simply pay better attention during school. It’s not as though a high SAT score is closed off to anyone. What bothered me during high school, however, was seeing unmotivated average students buy a higher SAT score by having a private tutor come to their homes once a week. It’s not the intelligent, organized, self-starting poor kids I’m concerned about, as they can teach themselves, but rather all the students in the middle, who on their own won’t study for the SAT but will if much of the preparatory and evaluative work is done by a tutor, something which most people cannot afford.

  14. Gabriel Rossman March 22, 2004 at 7:00 am | | Reply


    actually, the uc system (including uc berkeley) did threaten to drop it, and ets made the changes the uc wanted,

  15. Claire March 22, 2004 at 2:29 pm | | Reply

    The biggest barrier to success in college is not race or socioeconomic status.

    It is not even intelligence, for there are a great many young people who are easily intelligent enough to complete a college degree.

    It is not access, for there are plenty of colleges available and plenty of scholarships and financial aid packages available.

    What is the biggest barrier? Lack of willingness to work at it. Laziness, poor self-discipline, lack of any kind of work ethic – these are the root of failure for what I suspect is the major share of young people who either fail to get into college or fail to complete a college degree.

    Most of them have never learned how to work hard, to work effectively, to discipline themselves. They make a haphazard effort, then whine and complain when that isn’t automatically enough. Next come the predictable excuses of victimhood.

    Why do Asian minorities succeed when others don’t? It’s not money, it’s not immigrant status, it’s not English language skills. Ask them and they’ll tell you: hard work, self discipline, and parental expectations, coupled with a refusal to accept anything less than a student’s best efforts.

    When we ask whether racism is responsible for young people not succeeding in college, I think we’re asking the wrong question and that’s why we haven’t found a successful remedy. We should be asking, “Why don’t these students from black and hispanic families and cultures consider college (and by extension, school) to be important?” Ask and answer the right question, and you will be on the track to finding a solution.

  16. Michelle Dulak March 22, 2004 at 3:41 pm | | Reply

    Nels, most of what you describe (reviewing the math that will be covered, vocabulary lists, techniques for eliminating wrong answers, &c.) is in the SAT prep books as well. They take you through all that. And then they give you sample tests, which you’re supposed to do timed, so that you know if you’re not pacing yourself correctly.

    The principal difference between working systematically through a book like this and hiring a tutor — other than the expense, I mean — is probably that the tutor makes you do the work, while the book just sits on the desk doing nothing unless you decide to do the work yourself.

  17. Nels Nelson March 22, 2004 at 3:56 pm | | Reply

    Michelle, that was actually the point I meant to make, though it probably was lost as I tend to type too much: it bothered me in high school to see lazy rich kids be able to purchase the motivation and structure which lazy poor kids could neither afford nor generate themselves.

  18. Richard Nieporent March 22, 2004 at 5:41 pm | | Reply

    it probably was lost as I tend to type too much

    Really Nels, we hadn’t noticed. :-)

    It would be nice if we lived in that perfect world where we all started out equal and our success was due solely to our own skills and efforts. However, we will never live in utopia. The fact of the matter is that anyone who is willing to make an effort and has a reasonable amount of intelligence can get into some college and succeed in life, if by success we mean getting a decent job and making a decent living.

    But that is not good enough for the grievance groups. They insist that the “right number” of minorities must be admitted to the elite universities irrespective of their ability to compete. Thus, they are setting them up for failure. I guess for these groups, the appearance of success, i.e., being admitted into the schools, is more important than these students actually being able to get a college degree. How sad.

  19. StuartT March 22, 2004 at 7:25 pm | | Reply


    Well, I doubt you’ll be overly surprised to learn that I don’t agree with the merits of your second response either. The original point of my sarcasm remains quite valid (until I hear a better argument to the contrary). Your comment #9, paragraph two offers several contentions which I’ll take exception to. As an aside, I realize we are sawing sawdust here, but I’m game if you are.

    1) “stopwatches are perfect evaluators of track ability at the present, as track ability is exactly what they measure.” Wrong. Stopwatches measure one-time performance, not ability. Do you think an inherently faster runner has never lost a race to an inherently weaker one? If the entrance “test” of a 100m dash is given one day when a runner is nursing an injury, is his time a valid “evaluation of track ability at the present?” No, it’s not. Stopwatches are valid tools to guage a single performance, and are very good, though hardly “perfect evaluators” of ability.

    2) “the SAT is an imperfect evaluator of academic ability at the present, as it measures things which only correlate to academic ability.” Exactly. But this isn’t its function. It is designed to measure scholastic aptitude, not academics per se. And given its stated function (measuring aptitude), it performs quite ably–though no one would claim perfectly.

    3) “At the instant that 10.3 in the 100m is posted, the runner being evaluated is, without a doubt, an excellent sprinter.” Are they really? In the final heat of the 1988 Olympics, Ben Johnson shattered the 100m world record. The stopwatch at 9.79 seconds “evaluated” him as the fastest man who ever lived. But he was hardly that. Rather, he ran the fastest time in history with the aid of enormous chemical enhancements. Once clean from steroids and other performance enhancers, he returned to mediocrity and actually finished dead last in the first heat of the 1992 Olympics. And keep in mind, he didn’t cheat in the race itself; he ran the same distance under the same conditions as all the other competitors. Though was 1988 for him a “perfect evaluation of ability?”

    4) “At the moment that 1450 on the SAT is recorded, the person being evaluated is a great test-taker but may be a lousy student.” What is this test-taking skill of which you speak? Surely you can’t mean it it as you have presented. Can you score perfectly on the CPA without mastering accounting? Could one pass the CCIE without knowing an ethernet from an OSI model? No, I think the SAT, like every other well-vetted test on earth, measures proficiency in its subject matter and not skill in test-taking. Now, of course, some test takers may be cooler under pressure than others, but welcome to real life.

    Thanks for the engaging debate (no sarcasm intended this time).

Say What?