The University of California’s historic move to abandon standardized exams may not be the last of changes coming to the admissions process for the public university system.
That’s the expectation of college access advocates and admissions experts who say ditching the SAT and ACT should be only the first step in making admissions more equitable across UC, which has nine undergraduate campuses. UC has stopped using those exams at all in admissions and made clear last month that it has no intention of replacing them with a different standardized test. UC made those decisions in response to criticism that the tests are biased against low-income students, disabled students and Black and Latino students.
“I hope we didn’t give so much weight to the impact of removing the tests, such that everybody’s expecting the demographics of who’s coming will now look dramatically different,” said Michal Kurlaender, a professor of education policy at UC Davis whose research includes college preparation and access. “There are definitely huge equity concerns with the SAT. But I am also worried that in removing it, there’s going to be this assumption that now our system is equitable and outcomes will look better. That isn’t going to happen naturally.”
Other ways the UC can make admissions more equitable include working more closely with K-12 schools to better understand their applicants and possibly even guaranteeing admission to more students who meet certain criteria, Kurlaender and other admission experts say. UC campus officials also say they could use more funding to expand student capacity and hire more staff to help with reviewing the growing number of applications that have been submitted since the tests were dropped.
Admissions decisions are made by UC’s campuses, but system leaders also have acknowledged the need to make UC more accessible. Board of regents Chair Cecilia Estolano said at last month’s regents meeting that when UC reviews student applications, they are dealing with “generations of educational inequity and baked-in discrimination,” adding that the university system must “continuously evaluate the effectiveness” of how admissions decisions are made.
At the state’s other public university system, California State University, the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions is currently suspended for fall 2022 decisions. That system plans to decide soon whether to use the test scores for decisions in fall 2023 and beyond.
Eliminating the SAT and ACT puts even more emphasis on a student’s high school grades. To be eligible for UC admission, students must take a set of classes known as A-G courses, which include math, science, history, English, art, foreign language and electives.
Taking advanced versions of those classes, such as honors or Advanced Placement courses, can give students a leg up when applying. But the students who would be at a disadvantage with a testing requirement also often have unequal chances to take those classes. Black, Latino and low-income students are less likely to have access to and enroll in advanced courses in high school than their white, Asian and high-income peers.
Kurlaender said there needs to be an investment in K-12 schools to ensure that there is equity across the state in the types of courses available to students.
“It’s more than just making sure that the A-G courses are available,” Kurlaender said. “It’s the richness of those courses, the weighted courses, the kind of courses it takes to be competitive at UC.”
Robert Penman, executive director of undergraduate admissions at UC Davis, started in his role in August and is now entering his first admissions cycle. He said his office has made it a top priority to meet with high school counselors across the state and understand the specific circumstances at different schools.
For example, this year, some schools have had substitute teachers for two consecutive semesters in certain classes, Penman said. That’s something he said is worth considering in admissions because it “can make a big difference in a student’s learning experience,” as students generally have better educational outcomes when they have stable and qualified teachers.
It can be especially difficult for admission officials to fully understand the local context of schools that are located far away from their given campus. At UC Irvine in Orange County, admissions staff often have little information about schools in areas like the Central Valley and the northernmost parts of the state near the Oregon border, said Dale Leaman, executive director of undergraduate admissions at the campus.
Leaman said he “would love to have more resources” so his staff can visit those schools.
“I think we have a responsibility to the entire state. We have a responsibility to the students in Eureka and the students in Redding and the students in Chico,” Leaman said.
This year, UC saw a major spike in the number of applications it received for freshman admission. Across the nine campuses, about 32,000 more students applied for freshman admission in fall 2021 compared to fall 2020, an 18% jump.
The big increase has overwhelmed some campuses because they haven’t been able to hire more application readers to review and score applications. That can be a detriment to students because it means, on average, their applications are getting less attention than they did when the campuses received fewer applications.
“The increase in applications requires a lot more time. Our staff, they are stretched so thin,” said Michelle Whittingham, the associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at UC Santa Cruz. That campus received 61,708 applications for freshman admission in fall 2021, up from 55,003 the previous year.
Whittingham said the campus typically employs about 50 readers. Increasing that by anywhere from 25% to 50% would be a big help, she added.
Campuses across UC could also be more efficient with how they review applications, said Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and an expert in college admissions. For example, Rothstein said he’s suggested that Berkeley admissions staff give more thorough reviews to applicants who have a realistic chance to be admitted and spend less time with applications that aren’t competitive.
UC considers 13 factors when reviewing applications that range from grade point average to extracurriculars to any special circumstances that a student faces — such as a disability, low family income and whether a student is the first in their family to attend college.
“They have to read a lot of applications quickly,” Rothstein said. “They’re somewhat underfunded and under pressure. And that means that they don’t give each application the time it deserves. And I think there’s a lot that the universities can do in the details to make sure that applications do get the care they deserve.”
In-state students who graduate in the top 9% of their high school class are offered guaranteed admission to UC. But those students aren’t guaranteed that they will be admitted to the campus of their choice, just that they’ll be accepted to at least one of the campuses, even if it’s one they didn’t apply to.
UC could improve the current guarantee program by creating a local guarantee, where students would be promised admission to the campus closest to their high school if they meet certain criteria, said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity.
Black and Latino students attend the state’s CSU campuses and community colleges at higher rates than they do UC campuses, and those who do attend UC have a higher chance of graduating, Dow noted.
Dow said a local guarantee could go a long way in making Black and Latino students better represented at UC’s most competitive campuses. Latino students, for example, make up 25% of the undergraduate student population at UCLA but 65% of the K-12 population in Los Angeles County public schools.
“I think if we guaranteed students admission to their local UC, provided they meet the admission criteria, we would see a very different demographic makeup. And one that is much more closely aligned with our California communities,” Dow said.
The idea, however, has lukewarm support at best from UC admissions officials. Leaman, the UC Irvine undergraduate admissions executive director, noted that the system already has a capacity issue. Most campuses receive more qualified applicants than can be admitted.
“There are a finite number of spots. Any time you make a guarantee to one population, you’re reducing the opportunities for another population,” Leaman said.
Leaman pointed out that Irvine does guarantee admission to community college transfers meeting specific criteria. Irvine is one of six campuses with a transfer guarantee, along with Davis, Merced, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
One straightforward way to give more students a real shot at being admitted to UC is to increase the number of spots at each campus. Each year, UC turns away tens of thousands of applicants, including many who are eligible. This year, the system made freshman admission offers to more than 132,000 students but rejected 35% of applicants, or about 71,000 of them.
“We don’t have enough seats for all eligible students, and it doesn’t match the demand for a higher education. Families and students want to make more than a living wage. And they know that college is their way to get there,” Dow said.
But campuses can’t add more seats without also having additional funding to support those increases. “We need to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place to be able to accept additional students,” said Debi Kammerer, interim director of admissions at UC San Diego. That includes having enough faculty, classroom space and housing to accommodate those students. Housing is already a problem at UC, with many of the campuses dealing with housing shortages this fall.
The system could soon be getting help from the state Legislature. Lawmakers have said they plan to allocate an additional $67.8 million to UC campuses in 2022-23 to increase the number of spots for California residents by 6,230 students. Whether they’ll follow through on that promise won’t be clear for months, since the final budget isn’t agreed to until the summer. It’s also not clear where Gov. Gavin Newsom, who negotiates the budget with lawmakers, stands on the issue. Eleni Kounalakis, the state’s lieutenant governor, serves on UC’s board of regents as a voting member.