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‘Tis the Season for College Applications

Hans Johnson November 29, 2018
Royce Hall At UCLA

Across the nation, millions of high school seniors are in the process of completing college applications. Friday is the deadline to submit applications for freshmen admission to the fall 2019 term to California’s public universities (the University of California and the California State University); most private colleges have January deadlines. The number of applications this year should be staggering—in California most of all. But the state is having difficulty keeping up with demand.

Recent years have seen all-time records in freshman applications. In fall 2016 (the year of most recent nationwide data), more than 10 million applications went to more than 1,500 four-year colleges and universities, leading to 5.7 million admittances and 1.5 million enrolled freshmen. Ten years earlier, just over 6 million applications were submitted, leading to 3.6 million admittances and 1.3 million enrolled freshmen.

Significant growth has occurred in California, too. In fall 2016, 1.5 million applications went to 110 four-year colleges and universities, leading to more than 600,000 admittances and 139,000 enrolled freshmen. Ten years earlier in the state, 800,000 applications were submitted, leading to slightly more than 400,000 admittances and 104,000 enrolled freshmen.

California colleges and universities garner the most applications in the nation. Of the top 10 most popular schools, eight are in California (six UC campuses and two CSU campuses), as are 11 of the top 20. UCLA has led the nation in applications every year for at least the past 17 years, and in 2017 it became the first college in the country to receive more than 100,000 freshmen applications.

The popularity of UC campuses has surged over the past 10 years, with UC Irvine moving from 8th in 2006 to 4th in 2016, UC Davis moving from 11th to 6th, and UC Santa Cruz moving from 30th to 15th. In the CSU system, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has moved from 25th to 18th. And even though other CSU campuses fell in the rankings, they still experienced large increases in applications.

Of course it makes sense that California colleges would lead the nation: the state has more high school graduates than any other and offers a robust system of public universities. And students are applying to more colleges than they did in the past, which is part of the growth in applications. But much of the increase is attributable to improvements in college preparation. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of California high school graduates completing the courses required for UC and CSU eligibility increased by almost 60% (compared to a decline of 1% in the number of high school graduates who do not complete the college prep courses).

Unfortunately, California’s public universities have not been able to accommodate all qualified applicants. Indeed, California universities lead the nation in rejecting applicants. Each of the UC campuses except Merced are unable to admit all of the eligible students who apply. Six CSU campuses (including Long Beach, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo) are impacted for all undergraduate programs, meaning they cannot admit all qualified applicants, and most of the other campuses are impacted in certain majors. Both UC and CSU refer qualified applicants to campuses that have more room, but more needs to be done to expand capacity at campuses with high demand.

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