As admissions rates decline at University of California campuses, more seniors at Scotts Valley High School are branching out to other schools, sometimes in other states. Chart by Ryan Beam. Source: SVHS, Navianc
As admissions rates decline at University of California campuses, more seniors at Scotts Valley High School are branching out to other schools, sometimes in other states. Chart by Ryan Beam. Source: SVHS, Navianc

This month, while much of Scotts Valley High School’s class of 2020 commits to two- or four-year colleges, it’s a good time to consider how much the admissions process has changed in the past few years.

According to self-reported student data from 2016-2019, the four most applied-to universities among SVHS students are the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), San Diego State University (SDSU), and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). On average, each of these schools receives applications from about 25% of SVHS seniors.

At SDSU and Cal Poly, the two California State University campuses on the list, application and acceptance rates among SVHS students are generally above the state average. From 2016 to 2019, Cal Poly consistently admitted about one-third of SVHS applicants, on par with the university’s overall acceptance rate. SDSU admitted about half of SVHS applicants, compared to 35% of overall applicants. 

At UCLA and UCSB, acceptance rates among SVHS students declined three out of four years from 2016 to 2019, for a total drop from 32% to 10% at UCLA, and 42% to 23% at UCSB. These sudden drops are not unique to SVHS— they reflect statewide and national college admissions trends. During the same 2016-19 period, UCLA’s overall acceptance rate fell from 18% to 12%, while UCSB’s fell from 35% to 29%.

“I think the college admissions process has drastically changed,” writes senior Alex Jory, who will attend UCLA in the Fall. “ Many of today’s parents have the mindset that a good GPA and test scores will get you in anywhere, when in reality it’s very different.” 

Acceptance rates across UC campuses are falling for a number of reasons: shifting cultural norms, advancing technology, and a growing population have contributed to a massive increase in applicants. Meanwhile, the number of seats available has remained mostly steady. This year, UCLA received applications from 110,000 high school seniors— compared to 97,000 in 2016, and 60,000 in 2010. As more students apply, admissions officers lean more on subjective factors to differentiate the tens of thousands of applicants with near-perfect GPAs and test scores. In theory, this drives more students to apply to even more colleges, and leads to a self-reinforcing cycle of increased competitiveness at the state’s public universities. 

“My family understands the college application process, because my older brother went through it recently as well. They say it has become severely more competitive and complex over time.” offered senior Catelyn Reynolds, who will attend the University of Tennessee this year. 

“It’s crazy how rapidly the admissions process changes,” added senior Molly Abroms, who will attend UCLA in the Fall “My sister, a recent Cal grad, told me the other day that she doesn’t think she would have gotten in with her application in today's process.” 

Although more seniors nationally are applying to schools like UCLA and UCSB, the opposite appears to be happening at SVHS: from 2016 to 2019, the percentage of SVHS seniors who reported applying to UCLA or UCSB actually declined by about 25%. At the same time, the number of SVHS students applying to other UC campuses, including UC San Diego, increased significantly.

Other colleges that have seen an uptick in applications from SVHS include California State Universities, such as Chico, Sonoma and Humboldt State. Out-of-state public colleges, including the Universities of Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, are increasingly popular choices.

Although SVHS does not share individual students’ college lists, these observations indicate that students are adopting a strategy growing in popularity nationwide: increasing their odds by applying to more colleges. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of prospective freshmen in the US who applied to five or more colleges doubled, from about 17% to 36%, according to Inside Higher Ed

 As growing applicant pools make individual admissions decisions feel more random, applying to more than five colleges can be a valid approach—one taken by all three seniors quoted in this article. But with costly application fees and time-consuming applications, it remains to be seen whether this strategy can be sustained.

Ryan Beam is a senior at Scotts Valley High School. He plans to study Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley starting this fall. 

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