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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unequal Opportunity: Student Access to the University of California

  • Author(s): Martin, Isaac
  • Karabel, Jerome
  • Jaquez, Sean W.
  • et al.

The University of California (UC) is a pathway into many of the most coveted jobs in the California economy, and the promise that all Californians will have the equal opportunity to acquire a UC education is a core part of California’s social contract. The authors describe UC’s admissions policy and explore inequalities in the access that California secondary schools provide to UC. Their measure of access is the rate of admission, or the percentage of a school’s graduates admitted to UC, circa 1999. By merging data provided by UC with data provided by the California Department of Education, the authors are able to examine the rates of admission to UC from most of the individual high schools in the state. They explore inequalities associated with the race and socioeconomic status of the student bodies of these schools.

The authors find that a small number of privileged schools provide disproportionate access to UC. The average UC admissions rate for nonsectarian private schools is almost three times that for public schools. Public schools in affluent communities also have unusually high UC admissions rates. So do public schools with primarily Anglo and Asian student bodies. The authors consider recent policy interventions that aim to equalize admissions rates across schools by raising the floor or increasing the admissions rates of the lowest schools. They conclude that these policies are unlikely to have much impact on unequal access to UC, since they do nothing to reduce the yawning gap between the majority of schools and a small tier of elite public and private schools at the top.

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