THE UNIVERSITY of California is considering breaking with traditional undergraduate admissions and automatically accepting the top 4 per cent of students from every school in the state.
The plan takes its lead from Texas and has emerged from the battles over the end of affirmative action for minority students. Backers say it would bring in schools and communities that send few or no pupils to UC without lowering admissions standards.
Last year Texas passed a bill requiring state universities to admit the top 10 per cent of graduating classes from every school, public and private. Admissions officers there are arguing that their freedom to pick and choose will be restricted and that students from the worst schools will lag behind.
Supporters of the University of California policy say their lower percentage of admissions means that two-thirds of students will still qualify in the traditional way - on SAT scores and school grades. They believe that the guarantee of a generous quota of places for each school will motivate schools and pupils rather than dull competition.
The nine-campus university is the top echelon of California's public college system. About 11 per cent of all high-school students qualified for admission in 1996. Only top scorers typically get a place at UC Berkeley or UCLA, while the lesser-known UC Santa Cruz or UC Riverside are open to anyone who makes the grade.
Offering every school guaranteed places seems to mirror a trend encouraged by President Clinton and others to make higher education the natural option after school rather than for an elite.
The California and Texas policies reflect fears that the numbers of black, Latin and other minority students would slump if conservatives end positive discrimination for minorities in admissions. One way of ensuring ethnic diversity, it is thought, is by boosting admissions from schools in poor and minority neighbourhoods.
The UC plan, tabled at a board of regents meeting this month, met with some mixed reactions. But Keith Widaman, the psychology professor at UC Riverside who helped draw it up, said he believed it had solid backing.
It is partly an attempt, said Professor Widaman, to head off a more radical measure offered by a state lawmaker from South-Central Los Angeles that would require the university to take the top 12 per cent from each school. That would undoubtedly increase diversity, he said, but lower standards.
The 4 per cent figure would account for just the first third of students admitted (the UC has over 150,000 students). Students would compete for the rest of the places in a state-wide pool on the basis of their grades and scores.
The University of California draws most of its pupils from only about one-third of the schools in the state, he said. The next tier of high schools send quite a few students. But the bottom third, typically poor inner-city or rural schools, send almost none, or none at all.