University of California leaders are moving closer to expanding the number of students eligible for admission.

The 10-campus university has long been tasked with admitting the top one-eighth of California's high school graduates. But figuring out who should qualify for that pool and how have always been points of contention.

Faculty leaders this month approved a plan to improve the admission chances of students who don't meet minimum standards. The proposal, which must be approved by the Board of Regents, is meant to increase the number of applicants who are good students but don't fit into rigid guidelines, said Mark Rashid, a UC Davis professor who was the plan's foremost proponent.

"The point is to invite applications from anybody who looks ready for UC," said Rashid, who heads an admissions-policy committee for the systemwide Academic Senate. "As a public institution, we have a solemn responsibility to be as fair as possible. That means not discounting anybody for silly reasons." The new standards would include the following changes:

  • eliminate a requirement that applicants take at least one SAT single-subject test

  • guarantee complete review of applications from students who just missed minimum UC standards

  • guarantee admission for a handful of the otherwise unqualified students.

    The proposal would mean students who now are automatically eliminated from the university because of technical problems with their applications — such as the lack of a required class — would have their applications read anyway. UC Berkeley is one of the few campuses where every application is considered, regardless of eligibility.

    But the proposal has its skeptics. About a quarter of the Academic Senate's Assembly voted against the changes, with some members worrying that the plan could decrease diversity and academic quality.

    Others said the changes, expected to boost already-booming UC applications by several thousand per year, could overwhelm admissions officers.

    At UC Berkeley, where reviewers take the rare step of reading every one of the 48,500 or so applications in its entirety, a major increase in paperwork could hurt some applicants, said Walter Robinson, the school's undergraduate admissions director.

    "It may cause us to rethink how we go about comprehensive review," he said.

    Like a growing number of other colleges and universities, UC has moved gradually away from standardized tests and grades as the primary measures of excellence.

    "It's tantamount to defining merit," said Michael Brown, a UC Santa Barbara professor and chairman of the Academic Senate.

    "Before, if you didn't get the guarantee of the (UC) seat, you didn't get considered, essentially."

    As with most admissions reforms these days, race is an underlying factor. California is prohibited from using race as a factor in college admissions, and educators have spent years trying to find ways to increase attendance rates among black and Latino populations in particular.

    Without affirmative action, eligibility requirements make little difference, said Anne MacLachlan, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education.

    "Basically, we can turn ourselves inside out and create a whole lot of work for a whole lot of people, but it's not going to change the basic situation," she said.

    "It's a problem that's a mile long, and this is a centimeter."

    Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or mkrupnick@bayareanewsgroup.com.