“I had always imagined that growing up I would be able to go to a UC,” senior Elliette Willes said. “Not only do we pay the taxes for the UC system, but I always pictured myself being able to get in because I am a hardworking student and I have pretty decent grades.”
Willes, who sent applications to six University of California (UC) schools this past fall, found herself shocked after receiving a rejection letter from every single campus she applied to, considering her above-average grades.
After the shock of these initial rejections, Willes later appealed to UC Santa Barbara and was accepted. The appeals program is separate from the standard admissions procedure, and any student declined admission from a UC has the right to submit an appeal. However, according to UC’s website, “admission decisions are rarely reversed.” The UC’s Common Data Set showed that UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles (UCLA) each received upwards of 1000 appeals, and only accepted 30 and 34 of those students, respectively.
Admission to the nine UC undergraduate campuses has grown increasingly competitive in recent years, according to UC’s website. On the surface, it appears that the UC system favors out-of-state applicants over their own residents––despite California legislation designed to prevent this exact situation.
Eight of the nine UC undergraduate campuses (all but Berkeley) have lower in-state acceptance rates than out-of-state. UCLA, for example, admitted only 12 percent of its in-state applicants, compared to 22 percent of those out-of-state for the 2019-2020 school year, according to UC’s website.
Senior Sydney Segal applied to five UC schools. She was rejected from UCLA and waitlisted at the other four, despite her strong academic profile.
“I think it definitely hurts you applying from in-state, because I thought that I would get into at least one UC, given my stats and grades and extracurriculars,” Segal said.
An out-of-state student pays on average nearly $30,000 more in tuition than an in-state student, according to UC’s website, which gives the UC campuses a financial incentive to accept more out-of-state students.
“I feel that it was a disadvantage living in-state, because for a lot of the people that they take from out-of-state, they're making more money off of those students,” Willes said.
According to The Atlantic, state funding cuts in recent years have forced UC institutions to rely more heavily on tuition revenue, leading them to favor out-of-state students who pay higher rates to attend.
So, are financial reasons the sole cause for UC’s lower in-state acceptance rates?
Well, not exactly.
Sarah McBride, Media and Communications Strategist for the UC Office of the President (the headquarters of all 10 UC campuses), offered a possible explanation for the lower in-state percentages.
“While it may appear that some campuses have higher non-resident acceptance rates, UC receives a much larger number of in-state applications, which has increased steadily over the past 10 years,” McBride said. “Higher acceptance rates also may not lead to a higher proportion of out-of-state students, as California residents enroll at much higher rates than non-resident students.”
Furthermore, there is a program intended to eliminate this kind of bias toward out-of-state students.
Under the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education passed in 1960, all graduating California residents ranked in the top nine percent of their eligible high school (under the Eligibility in the Local Context program) or the top nine percent of the state are guaranteed admission as a freshman to one of the UC’s campuses. The ELC program allows California high schools to work in conjunction with the UC system to create UC eligibility requirements specific to their school.
To be accepted under the ELC program, students must be California residents attending a participating high school. They must complete 11 UC-approved courses by the beginning of their senior year, (more information can be found on UC’s website) and they must have a GPA that meets or exceeds the school’s benchmark GPA. These benchmarks are set using transcript data from past years to determine a cutoff tailored to that specific school for the top 9 percent of their senior class, according to UC’s website. These transcripts are compiled through collaboration with local UC representatives and counselors from high schools participating in the ELC program.
The program was originally established to place greater pressure on UCs to enroll more in-state students, but there is a loophole. While students in the top nine percent are granted acceptance to one UC campus, that campus may not be their first choice or even a campus they applied to. The UC website states, “ELC students who complete these requirements but are not admitted to a campus they apply to will be offered admission to another campus if space is available.”
Willes was accepted to one UC under this program, though she didn’t apply there.
“They did offer me a position at UC Riverside, but I just personally don't want to go there,” Willes said. “I think for me it would be more worth it to go to [a different] college than to go to a school where I wouldn't be happy and wouldn't like where I am.”
Many California students have found themselves applying to out-of-state schools as a result of the low in-state acceptance rates at UC campuses. About 40,000 California high school graduates left the state for a four-year college in 2016, nearly double the 22,000 who left in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Nearby Arizona State University, for example, has increased its enrollment of California students by more than 200 percent since 2002. Similarly, 14 percent of Oregon State University’s freshman enrollment was made up of California students in 2018, an increase of 11 percent in the last decade.
Despite more out-of-state college enrollment, UCs still receive high rates of applications from in-state students, which is evident among Redwood students. In an April Bark survey, 63 percent of students self-reported that they planned to or did apply to at least one UC campus. The streamlined application process allows students to apply to multiple or even all UC campuses with one application. This convenience, coupled with the distinguished reputation of the UCs, leads to an extremely high number of in-state applicants.
The lower tuition for in-state students also contributes to large amounts of applicants. Thirty-five percent of Redwood students reported that they would need to get financial aid to attend college. The more in-state applicants, the lower the overall acceptance rate for California students. Even with more in-state students applying, the UCs still admit a high number of out-of-state residents, which consequently decreases the in-state acceptance rate.
As a result of these lower acceptance rates, many students have found themselves waitlisted at a UC. Segal, who was initially waitlisted at UC Berkeley, submitted a letter expressing her interest in the school. She was later accepted and will be attending UC Berkeley in the fall. According to UC Berkeley’s website, 20 to 60 percent of students who accept a spot on the waitlist are ultimately admitted.
Both Segal and Willes offered similar advice for future college applicants.
“I would encourage people who really are dedicated to the UC system, and have always thought that they wanted to go there, to still look at other schools,” Willes said.
“Apply to a lot of schools,” Segal said, “Because you never know what [admissions officers] are looking for.”