April 24, 2014

April 24, 2014 - The proportion of California high school graduates attending the University of California has fallen to its lowest level in three decades, according to a new study in the Center’s Research and Occasional Paper Series.   Only 7.3 percent of the state’s graduating high school seniors entered UC as freshmen between 2010 and 2012, the lowest percentage since 1982. “Back to the Future: Freshman Admissions at the University of California, 1994 to the Present and Beyond,” is based on a sample of 1.1 million California high school graduates who applied for admission as freshmen at UC over the past two decades. The author, Saul Geiser, is a research associate at the Center and former director of research for admissions and outreach at UC’s Office of the President.

The paper examines the effects of both internal and external factors on UC admissions since 1994. The long-term decline in state funding for UC, which accelerated with the onset of the 2009 recession, has had a major impact.  Between 2010 and 2012, the number of California applicants not admitted to the UC system increased from about 13,000 to over 31,000, although about half the increase was the result of a change in admissions procedures at one campus.  The number of “no shows” – students who were admitted to UC but chose to attend other colleges and universities – also swelled to over 37,000 in 2010.   For the first time, more students declined UC’s offer of admission than accepted, in many cases because they could not get into their first-choice campus.

The paper also examines the impact of several internal changes in UC’s admissions system, including the growth of “multiple filing,” to the point where the typical student now applies to nearly four UC campuses, on average; the effect of Regents’ resolution SP-1 and statewide Proposition 209 on admission and yield rates for underrepresented minority applicants; and the recent change, in 2012, of the university’s policy on “eligibility” for admission, which expanded the pool of applicants from which the university selects its students while reducing the proportion who qualify for the university’s historic “guarantee” of admission to the UC system.

Due to a miscalculation by the authors of the new policy, the change has boosted UC’s eligibility rate far above the 12.5% target rate prescribed by the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education. This has created an unprecedented situation:  at a time when the UC participation rate – the proportion of California high school graduates who attend UC – has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years, the UC eligibility rate – the proportion of California high school graduates who qualify for UC – is now at its highest mark in the 54-year history of the Master Plan.

The paper concludes with policy commentary and proposals. The university is nearing a crossroads in its relationship with the people and State of California.   The funding model that has sustained UC throughout most of the Master Plan era is broken, and a new model is needed if UC is to continue to provide a place for all qualified Californians who wish to attend.   In seeking a new funding model, however, the original Master Plan concept of eligibility for UC remains as relevant today as it was in 1960 as a foundation upon which to rebuild.   Rather than discard the guarantee of admission for eligible applicants, the university needs to return the eligibility rate to its prescribed 12.5% target level. The traditional notion of eligibility provides an essential platform for UC to continue to grow with California’s population and, as the state’s economy also resumes growth, to restore its state-revenue base going forward. 

For access to the article, please visit:

Information on author:  Saul Geiser is a research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley and former director of research for admissions and outreach for the UC system.

Saul Geiser