Its stated purpose may be higher education, but for the storied University of California system recent times have brought with them the lowest of lows.

Twice in the past six months, California’s leading public universities up and down the Golden State have endured raucous protests over a planned 32% increase in student fees that would help offset a $637 million budget cut to the university system. Once in effect, it’ll send resident undergraduate fees past the $10,000 mark for the first time in state history (by comparison, in-state tuition at the University of Virginia runs around $9,850). One such dust-up, last December in Berkeley at the campus home of UC Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, resulted in broken windows, lights and planters, lit torches tossed at police cars, and eight arrests.

That mob won’t be amused by last weekend’s account in The Los Angeles Times of student fees being used for things decidedly non-critical to the lifeblood of the University of California, Los Angeles – specifically, $25 million that helped to pay for more comfy seats, better locker rooms and a new scoreboard at Pauley Pavilion. It wasn’t the money’s intended purpose. Those fees were approved, by student referendum, to maintain a pair of older campus buildings that are home to gyms and students centers, as well as seismic repairs around the UCLA campus.

But while higher tuition fees and dubious spending choices garner the headlines, the more salient issue may not be how much to attend the best public universities in California. Taxpayers might want to ask: who gets to attend, and how do they get in?

Under President Mark Yudof, the UC has a new freshman admission policy: instead of the top one-eighth of each high school senior class being eligible for entry (that’s based on grade-point average), the freshman eligibility pool instead would be widened to the top 20%. It’s part of what Yudof has described as a more “holistic” approach to university admissions – one inspired to increase diversity on the UC campuses, a sore subject in California academic circles since the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which banned the UC’s from engaging in gender-based, sex-based and race-based admissions.

And it’s only one change afoot for California higher education.

Later this year, for example, the UC’s Board of Regents will consider expanding online courses and encouraging more students to complete their undergraduate degrees in three years through extra summer sessions. And they’ll consider whether to double the enrollment of out-of-state students (who, not coincidentally, pay about two-and-a-half times more to matriculate in the Golden State ). That latter change, should it occur, won’t play well with middle-class California taxpayers who rely on the UCs as a more affordable alternative to a Stanford, Cal Tech or USC.

There’s no arguing Yudof is a man with a large social conscience. At last month’s UC Regents’ meeting in San Francisco he apologized for an off-color off-campus party at UC-San Diego that ridiculed Black History month. And he very publicly stood by his “holistic” philosophy: “I want a system that is less mechanical and takes a serious look at a range of talents and skills and history, and takes into account poverty.”

Yet, ironically, one of the biggest losers in the deeper pool could be Asian-Americans – 12% of California’s population, but 37% of UC admissions last year. Under the new policy, the UC estimates, the proportion of Asian admissions will decline by as much as 7%.

So much for who gets in. Now, the how they get there.

Earlier this year, the UC’s Board of Regents voted to ditch the two SAT subject requirements for university applicants, beginning with the class entering in the fall of 2012. The argument for doing so: fewer minorities takes the subject tests; and, besides, a test score doesn’t necessarily reflect talent or potential.

So what’s the UC relying on, instead of such traditional bellwethers as language, literature and science?

At Berkeley, the new determination will be “opportunities an applicant has had, and the [application] reader’s assessment . . . based on how fully the applicant has taken advantage of those opportunities.” Meanwhile, down south in Westwood, UCLA officials are told to be on the lookout for “evidence of an applicant’s ability and desire to contribute to a campus that values cultural, socioeconomic, and intellectual diversity.”

So is the UC system breaking new ground by trying to transform California admissions from something less empirical to something more feel-good? Not exactly. It’s just one example of a long tradition of standardized testing losing out to a “test-optional” mindset that’s becoming increasingly prevalent on America’s campus. According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (Fair Test), some 830 colleges have chosen to go “test optional.”

And what’s sparking this change? For some, it’s a loathing of testing that borders on the irrational. Consider this “fact sheet” from the folks at Fair Test, “How Testing Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline”:
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