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What you need to know about UC Berkeley’s enrollment cap

Campanile and Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley

NOTE: This article discusses news from March 2022. The contents may now be out of date, so please do not take this discussion as the final word on Berkeley's future enrollment.

Update (March 15, 2022): California enacted legislation yesterday that will lift UC Berkeley’s enrollment freeze. It looks like this year’s, and potentially next year’s, high school seniors will be unaffected by the lawsuit filed by the Berkeley community organization. UC Berkeley will still have to complete an environmental review that was ordered by the court, but they will also have more time to litigate the case and potentially overturn the order. According to the new legislation, California public higher education institutions that are ordered to complete environmental reviews will now have 18 months to complete them before the institutions must freeze enrollment.

Update (March 12, 2022): California legislators have introduced bills that would retroactively cancel the court order requiring Berkeley to cut enrollment. They're on a fast-track to become law, and if they do, Berkeley enrollment will not be cut this year.

News of the court-ordered cap on UC Berkeley enrollment for the 2022-2023 academic year was a disheartening surprise, especially to students and families who are anxiously awaiting UC admissions decisions this month. The court order requires UC Berkeley to reduce enrollment by more than 3,000 students for the upcoming year. The impacts will not only be felt across the UC Berkeley campus, which is scrambling to develop strategies to minimize enrollment losses for freshman, transfer, and graduate applicants, but will also likely be felt by the other UC campuses.

The Problem

Last year UC Berkeley admitted about 10,500 California residents and 5,900 international and out-of-state domestic students to enroll a freshman class of 6,900. Roughly 70% (about 4,900) were California residents. With the looming slash in UC Berkeley’s enrollment campus-wide, campus leaders have said that they plan to increase the proportion of Californians in the 2022 freshman class to 90%, an increase of about 500 California students to 5,400, up from 4,900 last year. Because roughly half of applicants offered admission by UC Berkeley choose to accept their offer, Cal will need to admit potentially 1,000 more freshman applicants from California. That seems like good news for Californians, but there may be other consequences as well.

Berkeley's Options

To minimize loss of enrollment, UC Berkeley leaders say that they may have to offer about 1,000 admitted freshmen spring admission or remote learning for the first semester. UC Berkeley has offered spring admission to a small group of freshman applicants for many years through their Fall Program for Freshmen (FPF). However, the FPF is different because some of those students are provided housing and they still take classes in person in a UC Berkeley-owned building near campus. But this year, it seems likely that many applicants offered spring admission will, in fact, be required to start in the spring to reduce the number of students on campus or in the community. This may not feel like a good outcome for the type of students who are typically admitted to Berkeley, but we hope that students who are offered this type of admission will consider it.

A spring start, for example, though not ideal, may have upsides. Some students could use a break before starting college, and a spring start would provide time to pursue hobbies that students don’t generally have time for. It would also enable students to work and save money for college. When they do start, spring students are likely to become part of a tight-knit group of spring students, perhaps making the large university experience a bit friendlier.

With regard to remote learning, many UCs have used remote learning throughout the pandemic, and it can work well, but it isn’t ideal for many students and for many majors. Students who need more support or who are majoring in a science and need in-person experiences in labs will potentially miss out on or have to delay important learning opportunities. A lot of students are understandably tired of remote learning and want the social experience of living in a dorm, so some admitted students offered spring admission or remote learning may choose to start their college career at another UC or CSU campus.

It is unclear how UC Berkeley will cope with the loss of tuition revenue from out-of-state students, who pay nearly three times the tuition of in-state residents. Academic programs, class sizes, support services, and in-state tuition may be impacted, and non-residents will clearly find admission to UC Berkeley even harder to achieve.

UC Santa Barbara Library
West entrance to the UC Santa Barbara Library, showing Mountain (left) and Ocean (right) sides of the library. Photo by UCSB Library, 2017, CC BY-SA 2.0

Other UCs

The other UC campuses that have not yet released their admissions decisions are probably very concerned about what this news means for them. For many reasons, it is crucial that campuses closely predict enrollment. If they under-enroll, they will lose critical tuition funding that supports important academic programs as well as tuition support for under-resourced students. If they over-enroll, they will exacerbate issues that many campuses already face: finding space in courses and housing for their currently (over-)enrolled students. Our guess is that many of the UCs may hedge against over-enrollment by admitting fewer students, while at the same time hedging against under-enrollment by compiling larger-than-ever waitlists.

We also suspect that CSU campuses, especially the most popular residential campuses, like Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and San Diego State that commonly overlap with UCs, may also be impacted as they manage enrollment on their campuses. What this means is that a lot of applicants to California’s public universities may be waitlisted at campuses that they had hoped to attend, leaving them in limbo past the May 1 deadline to commit to one college. It’s also possible that other UC campuses that are already coping with enrollment issues, such as UCSB, UCSD, and UCSC, may consider new admissions strategies, such as spring start or remote learning, though this has not yet been confirmed.

California has the largest population in the US, and this year UCs received the largest number of freshman applications ever. The timing of this court order was really unfortunate, coming while some UCs were rolling out admissions decisions and just weeks before all decisions will be out. We won’t really know what the impacts will be until they unfold over the next few weeks. For this year’s seniors, we recommend that you keep an open mind and don’t take anything off the table as the application notification process winds up this month. Also, regardless of waitlist status, remember that it is critically important that you accept at least one offer of admission by May 1, unless your alternative plan is to attend a community college next year and apply to the UCs, CSUs or other colleges as a transfer student, a reasonable alternative.

For more information, or if you have questions or concerns, please reach out to our counselors at Capstone. We are happy to help!

Featured image (top): Wheeler Hall (left) & Sather Tower, also known as the Campanile, at UC Berkeley in 2012. Photo by Matthew Enger.

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