UC letters of recommendation guidelines will hurt less advantaged applicants, critics say

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On Thursday the University of California Regents approved new college application guidelines that allow campuses to ask for additional information from tens of thousands of high school seniors applying for admission.

The Policy on Augmented Review in Undergraduate Admissions allows campus admission officers to ask for no more than two letters of recommendation and other supplemental information from no more than 15 percent of applicants.

Staff said the policy gives campuses ways to get more information about applicants as admissions offices are flooded by applications.

“For the most part, I think the information they get is very comprehensive,” said Mollie Beckler, a counselor at San Marino High School. She doesn’t think the policy is necessary.

“I have received, over the years, many phone calls from UC admissions representatives wanting to ask questions about applications. They will pick up the phone if they have a question about something on an application.”

According to the staff report, the policy is a way to standardize the request for letters of recommendation across all campuses after UC Berkley asked in 2015 to require letters of recommendation from all applicants.

U.C. staff raised questions about whether students are schools with fewer resources could produce a letter of recommendation that was equal to that of a student at a school with more resources.

The staff report said the policy would not hurt applicants.

But some college counselors disagreed.

“I think the students that will benefit are the students that are in private schools, students that have parents who can afford private counseling consultants,” said Catalina Sifuentes, a former high school counselor who is now head of College and Career Readiness services at the Riverside County Office of Education.

The big difference is time, she said. In well-funded schools like San Marino High School, students get more help on their college applications because school districts can tap into independent fundraising and voter-approved taxes that add millions of dollars to school district budgets.

But not all schools share those resources. The California Department of Education said last year that its 945-to-one student to counselor ratio ranked it last among all fifty states.

Sifuentes said she’s heard of teachers and counselors denying students letters of recommendation at schools with limited college prep resources. She’s worried about the student applying to a U.C. campus who is asked for a letter of recommendation.

“They’re either going to get a cookie-cutter letter of recommendation, I fear, from a counselor or some of them might tell them, 'Honey I can’t write one.'”

That’s not the case at San Marino High School.

“We are prepared as counselors to write a letter for every single one of our seniors,” counselor Beckler said.

U.C.’s policy isn’t forward-looking, she added. She’s seeing some private colleges ask for student work instead of letters of recommendation.