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The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities

reviewed by James Parelli - February 22, 2008

coverTitle: The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities
Author(s): John Aubrey Douglass
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804755590, Pages: 352, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Admissions policies in both public and private universities have undergone significant evolution throughout the history of American higher education, often due to both internal and external influences. John Douglass, in his book The Conditions for Admission, provides a chronological account of the establishment and dynamic growth of the admissions process in the University of California (UC) system. He uses the UC system as a lens to examine admissions in America’s public universities. The book is divided into four sections, starting with the formation of the University of California,  “the largest research university system in the nation” (p. 6)  As a current Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC, Berkeley, Douglass talks mainly about the UC system, while occasionally bringing in examples from other public institutions, such as the City University of New York, in an effort to demonstrate a regional approach to admissions in public higher education. Beginning with the establishment of the UC system through the current day, Douglass covers the various political, social, and institutional influences on admissions policy, incorporating themes ranging from socioeconomic status, quotas, affirmative action, standardized test scores, grade point average, and class rank.

The main theme of the book is a discussion of the struggle, primarily at the University of California, to establish an acceptable admissions process and criteria. Douglass is successful in demonstrating the history of the UC system’s admission policy and the obstacles the institution had to overcome to minimize opposition; however, as his focus is really on the UC system, it should be mentioned in the title.

In the first section of the book, Douglass offers a historical discussion of the foundation of American public universities, noting their role as a “social contract” to increase the academic and social opportunities for residents as well as enhance local economies. However, he neglects to account for some of the major public universities that were not created under this premise, such as the University of Virginia (Cunningham, 1988). His discussion may be misleading to readers lacking expert knowledge on the development of public universities.

The controversial topic of access to public institutions was governed through multi-influenced admissions policies, pressured by not only administrators and faculty, but also by state legislators, courts, and public opinion. Douglass makes evident that these many sources of control served as a means for change when student enrollment was disproportionate in regards to regional admissions, ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, and gender. For example, legislators passed statutes that shifted the aforementioned categories into a proportional balance. Douglass also provides admissions information at comparable institutions, such as the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin, which had quotas for women; other institutions had quotas for African Americans and Jews, while he proudly declares that the University of California had no such quota policies.

Douglass moves on to a recurring topic in the second part of the book: standardized tests, particularly the SATs. According to the author, from the earliest date of such requirements for UC admission, standardized tests were a means of socioeconomic and ethnic exclusion, as students from wealthier and non-immigrant families performed better. Research shows that minorities such as African Americans, Latinos, and recent Asian immigrants scored significantly lower than white students (Rooney, 1998). It is not clear if the tests were used purposely to keep out specific groups, but Douglass argues that exclusion was the result. The tests consisted of sections that required a substantial understanding of the native language, and so students with English as a second language were at a disadvantage in scoring as well as American-born students. Similarly, there is a direct relationship between success on the SAT exam and the student’s socioeconomic background, which Douglass uses as substantiation to relate to performance on the early university-specific admissions tests (Terenzini, Cabrera, & Bernal, 2001). A big concern was whether the SAT would be a good predictor of freshman performance at UC. UC data suggests that the SAT II exams, which Douglass incorporates in the third part of the book, more accurately predict freshman GPA at UC and are also less sensitive to the test taker’s socioeconomic background and their parents’ education level than the SAT I exam (Geiser & Studley, 2001).

To remedy the growing discrepancies in student representation, the UC system adopted programs for diversification including the Educational Opportunity Program and Student Affirmative Action. Such initiatives were met with opposition from UC Professor Allen Parducci, who deemed them anti-meritocratic in UC’s Final Report of the Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions (1977). Not only were these diversification programs adopted in undergraduate colleges, but professional schools used them as well. Douglass makes references to notable affirmative action cases such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which the Supreme Court barred quotas and allowed race to hold the weight of one single factor in the admissions decision. Douglass provides some personal input regarding the judicial influence that American courts had on admissions policy. He believes that court rulings often based their decisions on personal rights rather than fully considering “the broad issues of institutional purpose,” indicating that he feels that courts more frequently make rulings against the favor of the institutions (p. 121).

Moving into more current issues pertaining to college admissions, Douglass discusses the impact of affirmative action on higher education as well as the opposition against it. He talks about state legislative initiatives to curb the effects of affirmative action, noting that governors often take a similar stance as that of Professor Parducci, deeming it anti-meritocratic. However, Douglass points out the inapplicability of many executive orders to UC as its status is constitutionally classified as a public trust, which means that, depending on the order, UC must still maintain its accessibility to the broad public. The culmination of the debate regarding admissions based on race resulted in a motion that “removed race, ethnicity, and gender related to university admissions,” which made UC the only public institution to disregard such factors in admission (p. 179). This momentous mandate was an effort to reestablish applicants’ achievements as the means to admission, but it was also a step away from the previous diversification outreach. Douglass provides a graph earlier in the chapter indicating the eligibility of each minority group for admission, and it is clear that only Asian Americans and Euro-Americans met the top 12.5% of high school class master plan enrollment criteria with significant numbers. Other racial and ethnic groups would still be under-represented without special preference from admissions policies. Generally, the book does encompass both pro and con arguments on affirmative action, but it skimps on insights from people outside of the University of California or the California state government, which are included in Lydia Chávez’s The Color Blind (1998). This shortcoming makes aspects of the book seem slightly narrow and biased.

Returning to the SAT debate in Part III, Douglass thoroughly discusses opposition to the exam, as well as the resulting alteration to the way UC reviewed applications. Admissions committees began taking into account more of the student’s application package, paying attention to areas other than exam scores. The precedent was set in 1995 that up to 50% of students’ applications would be reviewed in full, not just with regard to GPA and test scores. A prominent topic in this part of the book is former UC President Atkinson’s movement to remove the SAT test requirements, which had a large impact on the Educational Testing Service, ultimately encouraging the revision of the SAT I and the requirement for taking the SAT II exam for UC admission.

Douglass concludes the book with a discussion of more current issues regarding public institutions, such as the funding crisis as state governments reduce their financial support of higher education. The repercussions involve raising tuition rates, and taking in more out-of-state students for increased revenue. The need for seeking more sources of funding has been termed the “privatization” of public institutions, which, according to Douglass, could potentially change the “social contract” under which public universities were founded.

By and large, The Conditions for Admission provides excellent insight into admissions policies and their effects on the role of public universities. Being a part of the UC system, John Douglass has the resources and experience to discuss thoroughly the University of California as a model for American public institutions in general. However, not having “The University of California” in the title led me to think that the book was going to speak generally in terms of public universities. The author does bring in some examples from public institutions elsewhere in the country, but the vast majority of information pertains to the UC system, so it may fall short in capturing the full scope of admissions throughout American public universities.


Chavez, L. (1998). The color blind: California’s battle to end affirmative action. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cunningham, N.E. (1988). In the pursuit of reason: The life of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Ballantine Books.

Geiser, S., and Studley, R.E. (2001). UC and the SAT: Predictive validity and differential impact of the SAT I and SAT II at the University of California. University of California Office of the President.

Rooney, C. (1998). Test scores do not equal merit. Enhancing equity & excellence in college admissions by deemphasizing SAT and ACT results. FairTest, National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

Terenzini, P.T., Cabrera, A.F., & Bernal, E.M. (2001). Swimming against the tide: The poor in American higher education. College Board Research Report.

University of California Office of the President (1977). Final report of the task force on undergraduate admissions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 22, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15019, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 11:03:46 PM

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About the Author
  • James Parelli
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    JAMES PARELLI is a dual-degree student at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and School of Dental Medicine. His interests include administration and teaching at institutions of higher education and dental schools.
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