Trends in College Applications at the University of California. Bonus: an Explanation of the Waitlist, the rise of Waitlist Admissions, and the Role of Politics in College Admissions in 2019-2020. Warning: Somewhat Wonky.

Who should read this post–anybody who wants an overview of data in admissions for the University of California, and anybody who wants to understand the use of waitlists and waitlist admits, with a historical perspective that applies all the more in 2020.   Also: Anybody who is still innocent enough to think data is just data.  

Bonus links to fill in the data holes, and an explanation of why those holes in data today exist.

As you have probably heard, there are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics.  The fact that nobody really can say for sure who came up with that aphorism–Benjamin Disraeli?  Mark Twain?–is a lot like the information available for the most recent application season.  Outside of the Ivy League, most application information for the class of 2023 is still AWOL or incomplete.  The reasons for this are budgetary and political, but the politics vary.  Let’s look at the University of California first, and how these trends have developed–

A look back at the data on admissions over the last decade at the University of California Admissions.

The big jump in applications happened after 2010;  by  2016-2017  applications were up at all campuses, and way up at a few, particularly at UCLA, which had 123,992 total applicants that year; for some perspective on that, in 2015, UCLA had 112,744.  The trend line was clear, though in both years, you had enough applicants to populate a medium-sized city, and the population of applicants not allowed through the gates was also growing rapidly.

What is also obvious is the trend in GPA and test data–the average GPA and test scores for students entering UCLA in the fall of 2016 was 3.91 unweighted and 4.33 weighted, with an SAT II average of 2080 and ACT composite score of 32.  And I add that for 2019 applications, the UC campuses have largely shifted from offering a simple average GPA and SAT/ACT up front to offering the middle 25th-75th percentile . . . partly, I think, to avoid saying who now has  a 3.93 or above unweighted GPA.  Berkeley, UCLA and Davis all reported a 3.92 unweighted GPA average in the last three years  . .

But we still await full data on admissions for 2019 high school graduates, a.k.a. the (college) class of 2023.  There are several reasons. First is the increasing use of waitlists. But before we look at waitlists, let us look at some UC admissions data today–there has been a bit of a plateau at the most competitive schools, (thank the god of your choice) but the admission walls are still very high at the top half of the UC system.  Here is recent data on total admissions for the UC:  UC admissions 2019.

And here is a place to click on the most recent Freshman profiles to see those GPA ranges, etc:  UC Freshman Profiles.  Just click on a campus for the data, and note that you are looking at weighted averages when you see that U.C. Berkeley 4.16-4.30.

So:  What are Waitlist Admits?

Waitlists are just that: lists of students who are qualified but who are bumped aside by students who appear to be slightly better qualified.  This also means that waitlists are places of hope, in fact are becoming increasingly so at the U.C. But the rise of waitlists has also meant the delay of data.  Here’s why:

The universities have to finish admitting students before they finish their data, and these days, with more students applying to more schools, it is becoming harder to predict yield for regular admissions.  Yield  is the total percentage of students who are admitted and then accept the offer.  After offers are accepted in early May, the schools, then go back to the drawing board, in this case, the waitlist, and make more offers.  This was still going on at some U.C. campuses when  I wrote the original draft of this blog in June of 2016–that was not an anomaly in 2016, and is now a rule of thumb in July of 2019.   This means that we won’t have full details on 2018-2019 admissions until 2019-2020 admission are being accepted.

UC is reluctant to talk about waitlists, but here is a historical look at what the  University of California, Berkeley did with waitlist admits for students entering Berkeley in the fall of 2015, :

U. C. Berkeley Waitlist 2015-2016

Number of qualified applicants placed on waiting list: 3,760

Number accepting a place on the waiting list: 2,445

Number of wait-listed students admitted: 1,340.  

For some perspective on this, 13,321 students were offered admissions prior to this waitlist admissions, so about 10% of enrollees were off of the wait list.  Not only that, those who were on U.C. Berkeley’s waitlist for fall of 2015  had a 55% admit rate –very good odds, with the overall enrollment rate at only 17% for that year.  For more on waitlists, with an FAQ for this year, take a look:  UC Waitlist FAQ

But of course, waitlist enrollments delay basic data totals until June and even July, which is of course also the last chance for admissions people to take a vacation, and with yield–the number of those admitted who actually show up to school–not confirmed until late August and not finalized until September or October, you have a number of problems getting accurate, recent data.  And you also have some disincentives.

But it’s not just the waitlist delay that shapes today’s data drought. Taking note of that switch in how GPA averages are reported, (simple average to a percentile range average) increased GPA is one reason we are still waiting for the data, imho.  Because:

Politics and Data Disincentives

There are two primary drivers that bury data here:  first, the U.C. and both branches of government in California have been engaged in battle over enrollment numbers, with Governor Brown for years being most vocal on the political side, but also numerous members of the legislature criticizing the U.C. for not admitting “sufficient” California residents.  Gavin Newsome has not made much noise . . . . yet.

But as you likely noted above, at least for that year, out-of-state GPA was slightly higher at Berkeley that for in-state GPA, which is not what you might expect, but still, when you tell your average California parent of a high school student that the average unweighted GPA for the two biggest U.C. campuses is at or over 3.9 . . . well let’s just say some constituents are not happy.

They don’t care if having 15% of students paying out-of-state tuition allows UC Berkeley to stay more or less funded (Ah, a couple of hundred million bucks short at Berkeley a year ago, but that is another topic . . .).  California parents just want their kid in the University.

And how far behind the curve the data is becomes pretty clear when you find that The Common Data Set for U.C. campuses like Berkeley for this year is still  a mostly empty Spreadsheet; go back a year and you have a pdf with complete data.  Yes, it is all going very slowly on the data front . . . with one additional political factor: audits and scandals in the past three years. And I am not talking about the admissions bribery scandal here.

Remember that audit and what had been hyped as a scandal involving “overpaying” some U.C. leadership, and some P.R. funds that U.C. President Napolitano had earmarked to make herself, excuse me her office,  look good? . . .

The pros who run the UC and the pols who run Sacramento do. So don’t expect to see  data suggesting that it is once again harder for a California kid to get into the University of California released before, Oh, Thanksgiving, when  a plurality of Americans are eating too much and distracted by football or holiday shopping. (P.S.–I don’t blame Napolitano for arming herself with some P.R. dollars for her battle with the state gov.)

Budget Factors

Adding to my last comment, I want to be fair to the U.C. –some of the same pols who attack the U.C. and its enrollment practices also fail to give it adequate funding–the budgets for the University of California and the Cal State University systems fell by about 30% between 2008 and 2013, and these cuts have only been partially restored.  Add the fact that student tuition has, on average, tripled in two decades, an increase which is almost entirely due to cuts in state funding.  So . . . any improvement in expenses would have to be met by an increase in funding.  Good luck with that, in this political climate.

It’s easier for a pol to blame and yell at the people running the universities than it is to pass the blame where it mostly belongs, which is to the voters.  Yep, I said it.  You get what you pay for, folks. And since people don’t seem to value the public commons much these days, you pay more for what are ostensibly public goods, if you want them.

In this context, why would the U.C. want to release data that would be used as a club against them by, oh, Assembly members who want to look like they are standing up for middle class families without actually paying for the needed services?    I expect that some of the folks building the common data sets that are currently AWOL have themselves been made redundant at places like Berkeley, which cut hundreds of classified/admin jobs last year, to deal with that deficit noted.  So in end, it all adds up.

If you want to get wonky and compare the more recent data I linked above to historical trends, see this:

Three year totals for University of California applications, 2015-2017.

That’s my roundup of data on the biggest college brand in California, at least for now.  When I get updates, I will add them.  Come back soon for this year’s discussion of the U.C. essays.  In the meantime, enjoy your summer . . .  

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