Starting this month, students with top academic credentials seeking to enter the University of California will no longer be guaranteed places.
In the boldest attempt yet by a US institution to embrace diversity, the University of California - incorporating Berkeley and UCLA - will stop admitting students solely on exam results.
Under the "comprehensive review" policy, test scores will carry the most weight for applicants, but will form only part of the selection process. Other considerations will include students' socioeconomic background, the school they attended and extra-curricular activities. These criteria, previously used to choose candidates from the lower 25 to 50 per cent of academic achievers, will now be applied to all. However, students must meet minimum academic requirements.
California's eight campuses have been given latitude in how they interpret the policy. Davis, for instance, has opted to skew its system towards test scores. Berkeley will adhere to the broader definition of merit, while UCLA will score applicants on academic standing, personal achievement and life challenges.
California's changes usher in "comprehensive review on a scale never before tried", said Terry Hartle, vice-president of the American Council on Education.
In a decision subsequently ratified by the university's full board, California's regents voted 13 to two in San Francisco last week to introduce the policy, starting with the first batch of 2002 candidates this month.
A clause bans the use of "racial preferences", but critics say it is an attempt to introduce affirmative action, outlawed by California State law, via the back door. Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities, said: "It's a way to deal with unequal educational opportunities... and... level the playing field."
Sue Johnson, one of the dissenting regents, said the policy "stepped away from rigour in not requiring measurable criteria as a specific part of admissions".
A university spokesman said $750,000 had been earmarked from state funds to help campuses hire additional staff for the extra workload.