When Marcela Sosa opened her email last month and saw the “congratulations” message from the University of California, Berkeley, she was so shocked that she jumped out of her chair.
“I didn’t even think I was going to get in,” the St. Francis High School senior said. “I had always placed it above me. ... It makes me proud that I put in the hard work.”
Sosa is one of the lucky few to be accepted in the most exclusive admissions class ever at one of the state’s most elite colleges.
Even as the University of California accepted a record number of freshman for fall 2014, admission rates at its most selective campuses reached new lows. Huge increases in the number of applicants, changing admissions processes and a growing emphasis on out-of-state and international students are driving them down.
Preliminary UC admission data released Friday morning showed a record 86,865 freshmen accepted this year, an increase of 4.8 percent from 2013. The overall admission rate dropped slightly, but rates plunged at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, long the system’s most selective, dipping below 20 percent for the first time.
UCLA’s admission rate, which fell to 18.2 percent from 20.1 percent last year, reflected the school’s growing profile and popularity. Applications surged 7.5 percent to more than 86,000, while admission levels held steady.
The drop was even more stark at UC Berkeley – to 17.3 percent this year from 20.8 percent in 2013 – under a new enrollment process that will see the university accept fewer students and then turn to an expanded wait list to fill any remaining open slots. Berkeley also saw a huge increase in applications, up 9 percent to almost 74,000.
Admissions officials said the shrinking acceptance rate reflects national trends for elite institutions.
“Students may have once applied to three or four universities as part of their college application process, and now you’re seeing those numbers creeping up,” said Anne DeLuca, UC Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment.
As more students are applying to more schools, creating ever-growing applicant pools, admissions are falling to headline-grabbing lows across the country, including 5.1 percent at Stanford University and 5.9 percent at Harvard University this year.
More students are also showing a willingness to attend college away from home, DeLuca said, so Berkeley has increased its marketing and recruitment efforts outside state borders. Applications from out-of-state and international students grew by 19 percent this year.
The university is attempting to take advantage of that interest to improve its financial standing. In a letter to the campus community Friday morning, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks announced that the university would be enrolling more out-of-state and international students with a goal of growing their portion of their undergraduate population from 20 percent to 23 percent over the next three years.
Nonresident students pay about $23,000 more annually in tuition and fees than Californians, which would bring in $2.2 million from an additional 100 out-of-state and international freshman UC Berkeley expects to enroll in fall 2014.
The decision was “driven primarily by our commitments to maintain Berkeley’s academic excellence, access and robust financial aid programs,” Dirks wrote. “In order to sustain the excellence of our programs and the student experience, tuition from out-of-state and international students is crucial.”
With tuition levels frozen and state funding recovering slowly from recession cuts, he added, “the fact remains that we have an unavoidable need to increase revenue in line with rising expenses.”
Berkeley admissions officials said accepting more nonresident students did not come at the expense of Californians and part of the additional funding would be used to enroll about 50 more in-state freshman this year than 2013.
UC Berkeley is not the only school in the system to make a push for more nonresident students. In 2011, UC Davis announced an initiative to grow by 5,000 undergraduates by 2020, saying it would put a particular emphasis on out-of-state and international students as a way to increase campus diversity and reduce the university’s reliance on state funding.
“It’s a growth concept that is also a financial model,” said Walter Robinson, UC Davis’ associate vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment.
Davis’ admission rate ticked up to 40.6 percent this year from 39.4 percent in 2013 as the university accepted 2,500 more students than last year. Out-of-state and international admissions were up 33 percent.
Across the system, an increase of about 7,000 applicants, to a record 148,688, was driven almost entirely by out-of-state and international students, and nonresident admissions were up by 11.6 percent.
“It’s hard to tell exactly how many out-of-state and international students we will ultimately bring in,” said Stephen Handel, UC’s associate vice president of undergraduate admissions. “They tend to accept our offer at lower rates than our California residents,” though the university expects nonresidents to make up about 13 percent of its undergraduate population next year.
Latino students also saw significant gains this year, increasing to 28.8 percent of the admitted student population and surpassing white students to become the second largest ethnic group of UC admits this year, behind Asian Americans.
That momentous shift, which Handel attributed to changing demographics and greater outreach to high schools across the state, comes as the California Legislature debates a bill to overturn part of Proposition 209, the 1996 measure prohibiting the consideration of race or ethnicity in public university admissions.
Last month, following widespread protest from Chinese American groups that led some Asian American legislators to withdraw their support, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez shelved the proposal, angering the Legislature’s black and Latino caucuses.
Jamie Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, said that while it’s too soon to consider it a definite trend, the promising increase in Latino admissions at UC this year could dim future legislative efforts to revive the bill.
“For those that oppose affirmative action,” he said, there is an argument that “the law is doing what it intended to do, and it’s not holding anybody back.”
But advocates of affirmative action are unlikely to stop their push, he added, especially because UC admissions for black students remain stubbornly low, something that Handel acknowledged is “a difficult issue for the university.”
The map shows UC campuses' freshman admission data for 2014.