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The University of California
Qualified Students Face an Inconsistent and Unfair Admissions System That Has Been Improperly Influenced by Relationships and Monetary Donations

Report Number: 2019-113



University Freshman Eligibility Requirements and Admissions Factors

Minimum Eligibility Requirements

Factors Campuses May Consider When Evaluating Applicants

Source: University undergraduate admissions policy, BOARS’s guidelines, and Regents board meeting minutes.

* Applies only to California residents. Out‑of‑state residents (nonresidents) are required to take 15 college preparatory classes; however, the university does not have a preapproved course list for schools outside of California.

In May 2020, the university suspended the testing requirement until 2024, but allowed campuses the option to consider ACT or SAT scores if applicants chose to submit them for fall 2021 and fall 2022. Further, on August 31, 2020, a judge prohibited the university from using ACT or SAT test results in its admissions decisions during the pendency of a related court case.

The University of California (university) is the State’s most selective public postsecondary education system. It has nine campuses that offer undergraduate education, each of which is responsible for implementing the university’s admissions process and deciding which applicants to admit to its campus.A 10th campus—the University of California, San Francisco—offers only graduate education and professional education in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and nursing. However, the university’s leadership sets admissions standards and guides the campuses’ conduct of admissions activities. Specifically, the University of California Board of Regents (Regents)—the university’s governing body—adopts university policies, including those related to admissions. The Academic Senate, made up of university faculty members, sets conditions for admission that are subject to the Regents’ approval, largely through its Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) committee. Finally, the university’s Office of the President has authority over university operations, serves as the systemwide headquarters, and supports campuses’ admissions and enrollment.

To be eligible for admission, applicants to the university generally must meet its minimum eligibility criteria, which the text box lists. The university requires campuses to verify applicants’ eligibility. However, eligibility is not a guarantee of admission. The university expects campuses to use a process known as comprehensive review to determine which applicants to admit. Comprehensive review involves evaluating applicants using multiple measures of achievement and promise while considering the context in which each applicant has demonstrated academic accomplishment. BOARS has issued guidelines that identify 14 different factors—such as academic grade point average, quality of academic courses planned for senior year, and special talents—that university policy allows campuses to consider when evaluating applicants and their fitness for admission. The text box lists these 14 factors.

The Undergraduate Admissions Process

Although campuses must adhere to the policies and guidelines that the university has established for admissions, they have significant discretion to set their own evaluation standards and establish the relative importance of the factors they will consider when determining which applicants to admit. For example, most of the campuses’ comprehensive review processes include a holistic assessment of the applicants, which does not specifically weight any of the 14 measures of achievement as more important than others. However, a small number of campuses weight some of the 14 factors more heavily than others. Further, some of the campuses that perform holistic assessments choose to focus almost entirely on one of the 14 factors—specifically, the factor called special talent—when assessing certain applicants, such as athletes. Campuses consequently put less emphasis on these applicants’ grade point averages and test scores.

At each of the three campuses whose general admissions process we reviewed—the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego)—the campus’s office of undergraduate admissions (admissions office) oversees the holistic assessment of each freshman application. These campuses have two different staff—whom they refer to as readers—evaluate and rate each application upon its receipt. Because of the volume of applications that they receive, the campuses rely on a combination of permanent admissions staff and temporary staff to read all of the applications they receive. As the text box shows, the three campuses use different rating scales to evaluate applications. After assigning those ratings, as part of their comprehensive review of applicants, the campuses may also request additional information from the applicants, such as letters of recommendation, that the campuses also consider when making admissions decisions.

After the readers have reviewed and rated each application, admissions staff are responsible for selecting applicants for admission. In academic year 2019–20, the three campuses we reviewed were generally among the most selective. UC San Diego received 99,000 freshman applications and admitted less than one‑third of them. UC Berkeley received 87,000 and admitted 16 percent, while UCLA received 111,000 and admitted 12 percent. After selecting applicants for admission, the campuses offer some applicants a place on their waitlists, from which they admit additional applicants as space allows.

Application Rating Scales at UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego

UC Berkeley
Strongly Recommend
Do Not Recommend

1 Emphatically Recommend for Admission
2 Strongly Recommend for Admission
2.5 Recommend for Admission
3 Acceptable for Admission
4 Qualified – upper half of qualified pool
4.5 Qualified – lower half of qualified pool
5 Recommend Deny

UC San Diego
1 (Highest rating)
5 (Lowest rating)

Source: Analysis of admissions policies at each campus.

Other staff—besides those in the admissions office—participate in the admissions process for certain applicants. These applicants generally fit one of two profiles: they are potential athletic recruits or they are applying to a major that requires an additional review, such as the theater program at UCLA. In the case of athletic recruits, coaches or other staff from the campus athletic department identify potential applicants who have desirable talent. The campuses rely heavily on their athletics staff to assess the applicants’ athletic abilities. Also, majors such as business at UC Berkeley or film and television at UCLA require applicants to submit additional records, such as essays or portfolios of work, to demonstrate why they should be selected for admission. Faculty and staff in those departments then evaluate those submissions and make recommendations to the admissions office regarding which applicants the campus should admit. Both athletic recruits and applicants to these specific majors generally must still meet university eligibility requirements.

The campuses’ processes for reviewing and admitting transfer applicants are similar to, but distinct from, their freshman admissions processes. Transfer applicants establish eligibility for admission to the university through completion of specified college coursework with a required minimum grade point average of 2.4 for residents and 2.8 for nonresidents. All three campuses have only one reader evaluate and rate each transfer application, but those reviews vary by campus. UCLA and UC Berkeley holistically review transfer applicants in a process similar to the freshman review process, but they heavily emphasize the applicant’s completion of the required coursework and academic performance. In contrast, UC San Diego does not holistically review transfer applications, and instead only focuses on whether the applicant meets minimum coursework requirements, such as completing a select number of transferable courses. Throughout this report, unless we specify otherwise, we refer to both the freshman and transfer admissions processes when discussing campuses’ admissions processes.

Admission by Exception

As we describe earlier, the university has established minimum eligibility requirements for admission to ensure that incoming students are well prepared to succeed at the university. However, university policy provides some flexibility to campuses by allowing them to admit a small percentage—up to 6 percent of enrolled applicants—of applicants who do not meet those eligibility requirements. The university refers to such an admission as an admission by exception. According to BOARS’s guidelines, this policy exists because the eligibility criteria do not recognize an applicant’s full set of achievements, talents, or personal circumstances. Furthermore, BOARS states that this policy provides a means to identify applicants who do not meet the technical requirements for eligibility but who demonstrate strong likelihood of success at or exceptional potential to contribute to the university.

Consistent with the university’s policy on comprehensive review, readers do not consider whether applicants have met the eligibility requirements when rating applications. Rather, as Figure 1 shows, readers evaluate applicants based on the 14 allowable factors we discuss earlier. Campuses then select applicants for admission, generally based on those ratings. BOARS’s guidelines issued in 2020 state that the campuses will identify the applicants from California whom they have selected who do not meet eligibility requirements and record the reasons why they are admitting these applicants despite their ineligibility.

Figure 1
Readers Do Not Consider Whether Applicants Meet University Requirements When Rating Applications

A list of process steps describing what factors readers consider when rating applications and clarifying that readers do not consider applicant eligibility during this review.

Source: Analysis of Regents’ policy and BOARS’s guidelines.

The University’s Admission by Exception Implementation Guidelines

Campuses may admit applicants by exception if they demonstrate “a strong likelihood of success or exceptional potential to contribute to the university.” Campuses can consider applicants who fall into one of the following categories:

  • They have overcome personal challenges that have affected their ability to meet eligibility requirements, including being low‑income, refugees, first‑generation college attendees, veterans, or have lived in foster care.
  • They have had nontraditional educational opportunities that have affected their ability to meet eligibility requirements.
  • They have demonstrated exceptional talent, accomplishments, or potential in athletics, performing arts, a specific academic area, leadership, or in contributing to the community.
  • They would enable campuses to establish new majors.
  • They possess academic achievements equivalent to eligible applicants but narrowly missed admissions requirements.

Source: BOARS’s guidelines.

BOARS provides recommended reasons for considering an applicant for admission by exception, which the text box summarizes. In April 2020, BOARS issued updated guidelines related to admission by exception. Among other changes, BOARS narrowed the applicability of the guidelines to apply to only California resident applicants as opposed to nonresidents. This change is consistent with how the university has interpreted its admission by exception policy when assessing compliance in the annual reports that BOARS submits to the Regents. It also added guidance related to tracking and reporting these admissions to BOARS. For example, an applicant who attended a high school that did not offer all of the required coursework but who still demonstrated high academic achievement, could be a candidate for admission by exception. Similarly, an applicant who is a highly accomplished athlete but whose GPA dropped below 3.0 could also be a candidate for admission by exception. However, not every applicant admitted because of a special talent is admitted by exception. In fact, at the three campuses we reviewed, the majority of applicants whom the campuses admitted because they were prospective student athletes or because of their skill in the arts met the university’s eligibility requirements.

The National College Admissions Scandal

In March 2019, federal prosecutors publicly announced their investigation into a college admission scheme that led to criminal charges against more than 50 people—including parents, college and university coaches, and a founder of a for‑profit college counseling and preparation business—related to falsifying information to facilitate the admission of more than 30 students to more than 10 different universities. Because the university admitted two of these students, it was one of many academic institutions implicated in this investigation. Specifically, a former men’s soccer coach at UCLA pled guilty to accepting bribes in return for falsely designating two applicants as competitive athletes, one of whom UCLA admitted. Investigators found that another applicant whom UC Berkeley admitted had submitted fraudulent standardized test scores to UC Berkeley. In response to the federal investigation, in March 2019 the university initiated an internal audit of its systemwide and campus‑specific admissions processes, which it completed in February 2020. The audit, which the campuses largely performed themselves, found weaknesses in several areas of the university’s admissions processes, including its processes related to athletic recruits and to admissions by exception. The audit recommended several improvements to strengthen campus admissions system processes.

The federal investigation’s identification of the two inappropriate admissions to the university generated concern from members of the public and the Legislature. At the direction of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (Audit Committee), we reviewed the admissions processes at UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego, with particular focus on the risk of improper influence in admissions decisions. We also reviewed the University of California, Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara), in the areas of our audit that related to student‑athlete admissions.

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