Eligibility for Admission to the University of California After the SAT/ACT: Toward a Redefinition of Eligibility, by Saul Geiser, CSHE 2.22 (February 2022)


Eligibility is a policy construct unique to California. UC and CSU are the only US universities that distinguish between eligibility for admission and admission itself and set separate requirements for each.  The eligibility construct derives originally from California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which famously mandated that UC admit students from the top 12.5% (and CSU from the top 33.3%) of California public high school graduates.  Thus began a long and twisting saga of policy implementation that has become increasingly convoluted over time. UC’s decision to eliminate the SAT/ACT in university admissions presents an opportune moment to rethink the eligibility construct from the ground up. This essay proposes, first, eliminating the now-antiquated “Eligibility Index,” a mechanical algorithm that is increasingly at odds with the thrust of UC admissions policy over the past two decades; second, moving from a 12.5% eligibility target (the percentage of students who qualify for admission) to a 7.5% participation target (the percentage who actually enroll); and third, redefining eligibility from a norm-referenced to a criterion-referenced construct. Using holistic or comprehensive review to select from among applicants who have successfully completed UC subject requirements at a specified level of proficiency, UC would admit that number of applicants needed to yield a 7.5% participation rate among California high school graduates. This is the same average participation rate that the Master Plan has yielded historically, so that the proposal would be revenue-neutral with respect to State funding for UC.  At the same time, like the 12.5% eligibility target, a 7.5% participation target would tie UC enrollment growth to growth in California’s college-age population. Conversion from an eligibility to a participation target would not eliminate the eligibility construct but would redefine it. In place of a norm-referenced standard – whether students rank in the “top 12.5%” – eligibility would be redefined as a criterion-referenced standard: Whether students have mastered the foundational knowledge and skills needed to succeed at UC. When we judge students against that standard, two truths become evident. First is that the pool of students who are qualified for and can succeed at UC is far larger than UC can accommodate; the chief advantage of a criterion-referenced standard is the greater scope for UC to select from a broader, more diverse pool of qualified applicants.  Second is that expanding eligibility is much less a priority than increasing actual enrollment and participation rates among the pool of those who are already qualified.

Publication date: 
February 16, 2022
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)