California’s high school seniors are now eagerly anticipating word from their colleges of choice, even as the pandemic’s impact on college planning—from applications to admissions to enrollment—continues in full force. The state’s public colleges and universities have changed admissions policies in response to COVID-19, but the crisis has highlighted a wide range of disparities in the process, with disproportionate effects on low-income students and students of color.
In spring 2020, the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) announced new admissions policies to address some of the academic effects of the pandemic. Many high schools switched from letter grades to pass/no pass or course credit systems during the pandemic; those non-letter grades will now satisfy A–G requirements during the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years but will not be calculated in GPAs. UC will continue to calculate GPAs using letter grades earned in grades 10 and 11.
In addition, UC eliminated the use of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT for admission decisions, and expanded the number of courses that meet math requirements to include advanced courses such as introduction to data science and statistics. CSU suspended the use of ACT/SAT scores for the fall 2021, winter 2022, and spring 2022 admission cycles.
Early evidence suggests that these policy changes have had a mostly positive impact. UC applications from California residents for freshman admission for fall 2021 reached a record high of 128,128, an increase of 13% over the previous year. Students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups made up 43% of admitted freshmen—the highest proportion of any incoming class in UC history. Applications from Californians in underrepresented groups remained at 45% of the applicant pool, but the proportion of low-income applicants decreased from 43.5% to 41.5%.
At CSU, however, freshmen applications from California residents for fall 2021 declined by 5% even after some campuses extended admission deadlines. These applicants mostly reflected the diversity of California’s high school graduates, with Latino students making up almost half (49%) of the pool. Admission rates increased from the previous year (91% compared to 88%). Students from racial/ethnic groups that are underrepresented among college graduates (Latino, Black, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and multirace) made up a record-high 63.8% of all Californians enrolled (up from 62.7% in fall 2020), but the total number of new first-year students fell 5%.
The pandemic has affected many critical aspects of the transition from high school to college. For example, the share of California high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) declined 10 percentage points from the previous year. Because financial aid is more important for low-income students—who are disproportionately Latino, Black, Pacific Islander, and/or American Indian—this has equity implications for college enrollment. Nationwide, freshman enrollment declined 3.1% in fall 2021 (following a 9.5% decline in fall 2020), with Black students showing the sharpest declines. While UC enrollment increased, CSU followed the national trend with a 1.7% decline. Enrollment at the state’s community colleges dropped much more precipitously.
High school students failed courses at alarming rates over the last two years, raising concerns about their preparedness for college. In Los Angeles Unified School District, only 46% of students are on track to meet the A–G requirements, down from 59% in 2019. Assembly Bill 104 allows students to repeat grade levels and/or change letter grades to pass/no pass during the 2020–21 school year, but the pandemic’s impact may be long lasting.
Three rounds of federal stimulus packages delivered more than $23 billion to help California schools recover from the pandemic. UC, CSU, and the community colleges received just over $10 billion. The state’s colleges and universities have initiated efforts to contact and re-enroll students who left during the pandemic. But COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on low-income students and students of color has renewed calls for additional resources. Beyond resources, state and local efforts could address these disparities by reducing barriers to college preparation, applications, and enrollment. It will also be important to monitor the pandemic’s disparate impact on higher education institutions—and the students they serve—to identify longer-term shifts in the college going process.