WASHINGTON -- Bill Gray could not believe what he was reading in the Wall Street Journal: 17-year-old Angela Malone had earned a 3.45 grade point average in high school and had scored 1,100 on the SAT, even as she worked part time and tutored younger students -- but couldn't get into the University of California at Berkeley, in her home town.
Within a week, Gray, president of the United Negro College Fund, had arranged a scholarship for Malone, an aspiring doctor, to attend Xavier College in New Orleans.
"If this girl doesn't have merit, who does?" Gray asked in an interview.
That is a central question as the nation lurches toward an end to affirmative action in college admissions, which gives special consideration to minorities to make up for past discrimination.
"There is a lot swirling in that regard, and I'm not sure there's a fixed definition [of merit] any more," said Donald Stewart, president of the College Board, the New York-based national association that provides research and services to schools, students and parents.
Universities throughout the country are considering, if not adopting, the "whole person" concept of merit, in which the circumstances of an applicant's life may be weighed on a scale with grades and test scores.
Some have gone so far as to broach the idea of doing away with standardized tests entirely, on the grounds that they are culturally biased against minorities.
"You don't want to just hang a number on a kid the way the SAT does," said Christopher Hooker-Haring, dean of admissions at Muhlenberg College, a private school of 1,800 students in Allentown, Pa. The school has just begun a five-year experiment in "holistic" admissions that exclude test scores.
Even the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which administers the SAT and other standardized tests, has warned that "equating scores with merit supports a mythology that is not consistent with the reality of data."
This year, application forms to the University of Texas Law School in Austin included an optional "Statement on Economic, Social or Personal Disadvantage" -- a calculated attempt to draw more minorities out of the applicant pool after the 1996 Hopwood vs. Texas federal court decision, which barred considerations of race, ethnicity or sex in admissions to public colleges in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
" 'Qualified' really means a combination of your accomplishments and your experiences," said Shelli Soto, the Texas law school's assistant dean of admissions.
Even so, preliminary data released this month indicate that 14 percent of the UT freshman class next fall will be ethnic minorities, slightly higher than the 1997 freshman class but 5 percent below the pre-Hopwood level in 1996.
Likewise, the freshman class of 1998 at the University of California's most competitive campuses, Berkeley and Los Angeles, will include significantly fewer non-Asian minorities. At Berkeley, it will drop from 21.9 percent in 1997 to 10.5 percent; at Los Angeles, from 21.8 percent to 14.1 percent.
Prior to California's Proposition 209, Angela Malone would have received special consideration as an African-American from a low socioeconomic background in her application to Berkeley.
But now, the only special preferences that still exist in California are for star athletes, the children of alumni or students with the political connections to wangle a "VIP" admission.
Similarly, in Texas, an attempt by state Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, to outlaw all preferences in college admissions prompted a private warning from University of Texas System Chancellor William Cunnington and legendary coach Darrell Royal that such a move would kill the Texas Longhorn varsity football and basketball programs.
"I told them I would trade them a 300-pound linebacker or a 7-2 center for 100 slots in the medical school and law school, just to show the hypocrisy in the system," West said.
"There seems to be merit in being able to run a football or shoot a basketball or having parents who went to college, but not much merit in trying to overcome economic disadvantages and racism," said Gray.
Right now, all these shifting notions of merit are swirling around a young woman named Jennifer Gratz.
Two years ago, the high school honors student and community volunteer in suburban Detroit applied to the University of Michigan, but was rejected. Gratz is now suing the university, charging that the university rejected her because she is white in order to make room for minority students with lower grades.
Experts predict that the Michigan lawsuit will ultimately lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling clarifying the concept of merit.
The high court ruled 20 years ago that colleges could use race as a "plus" factor, among other considerations, in an effort to achieve diversity, but could not operate a dual-track admissions system.