Each year, Tucson students ask for my help in applying to the University of California. The attractions are obvious: sun, sea, and access to the remarkably robust California economy.
Until last year, like many other state universities, the University of California (“UC”) welcomed non-residents because of their outsized tuition payments. For some campuses, being from out of state conferred a sizable advantage. I noted it here: Geographic (or Monetary) Diversity?
This year the UC altered course. It is now prioritizing admitting more California students, and will most likely do so for the rest of this decade. If you want to get into one of the flagship universities, or even one of the second-tier institutions, your quest will be significantly more difficult than in years past.
Why is this happening now?
California is not blazing new ground so much as returning to the status quo after many years of using non-resident tuition to substitute for state funding. The Los Angeles Times offers a short history:
The rollback in out-of-state and international students represents a significant policy shift years in the making. The public research university system began aggressively recruiting and enrolling higher-paying nonresident students as a source of additional tuition revenue after the 2008 recession when the state slashed its UC funding by one-third.
UCLA and UC Berkeley, for instance, increased the share of nonresidents among undergraduates from about 9.5% in fall 2008 to about 24% in 2021.
The growing number of nonresident students sparked a public outcry and a 2016 state audit, which found that UC admission practices were harming California students. UC sharply disagreed, arguing that the extra nonresident tuition dollars allowed it to pay for more California students and that state budget cuts had forced its hand. Eventually, the state economy recovered, funding for higher education began to rebound, and state elected leaders made clear that UC should boost California student enrollment as their constituents were demanding.UC admits record number of Californians, fewer nonresidents – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)
After a few years of resisting the Legislature’s entreaties, the UC relented after the Legislature passed a budget that directed additional funding toward enrolling California residents.
The results have been dramatic. Although various articles quote a statistic from UC stating that the percentage of non-resident admissions offers fell by 19% in 2022, the figures provided for the flagships – Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD – show an even steeper decline. Berkeley and UCLA each admitted 35% fewer non-residents; UCSD’s admits dropped 45%. Compare FRESHMAN Applications by Campus and Residency – Fall 2020, 2021, and 2022 (ucop.edu) with Freshman Admissions by Campus and Residency Fall 2020, 2021, and 2022 (ucop.edu).
Some of these declines are attributable to an increasing number of non-resident applicants over the last two years. Some campuses, such as UCSD, limited enrollment last year because of housing shortages. Although the UC is looking to expand (and UCLA just purchased a second, smaller, campus nearby), such efforts will take years to bear fruit.
The picture for non-residents will not improve soon. Any new slots will almost certainly be allocated to the burgeoning number of California students applying. The reason the Legislature and, eventually, the UC are acting is that parents vote; California parents have been vociferously complaining that their students are not being admitted to the University of California.
What does the decline in non-resident admissions mean for students in Arizona and other states? The UC already requires non-residents to have higher GPAs than residents (3.4 v. 3.0) to be considered for admission. While AP and IB honors courses are eligible for the extra point of GPA used to calculate a “weighted GPA,” courses designated as “honors” courses by high schools outside of California are not.
Lowering the number of slots for non-residents will increase the qualifications non-residents need for admission. At some point, California residents will have an easier time of it than their non-resident counterparts. (They already do if they are in the top 9% of their high school class, but this only wins them admission to the UC as a whole – which often means admission to UC Riverside and UC Merced.)
This inflection point has already arrived at UC Berkeley – where only 9% of non-resident applicants were admitted last year compared to 15% of California applicants. The odds were equal for non-residents and California students at UCLA. However, non-residents retained a measurable advantage at UCSD (24% v. 31%).
Further, non-residents may be “self-selecting,” such that only those with better qualifications than their resident peers are applying. Further, all UC campuses are now “test blind.” This means one less opportunity for non-resident students to demonstrate superior qualifications.
Should you apply to the University of California?
If you need financial aid, look elsewhere. The UC no longer provides need-based financial aid to non-residents, and merit aid awards are few and far between. See Who can get financial aid | UC Admissions (universityofcalifornia.edu) (although the website refers to “very limited UC financial aid” for non-residents, this appears to refer to a few scholarships awarding only a few thousand dollars per student per year); see also Grants & scholarships | UC Admissions (universityofcalifornia.edu).
Further, most of the UCs are overcrowded, meaning that you may have trouble graduating on time and your lecture halls will be jammed. Another important consideration is the availability of your area of study. Before applying to a campus, determine whether you will have difficulty declaring (i.e., getting into) your choice of majors once you arrive. Google “university of california impacted majors” and read very carefully.
The whole UC experience may not be the “California dream” you are anticipating.
Here is one student expressing a bit of buyer’s remorse:
As a biology student, UCSD does have a very distinguished biology program and research,” Wu said. “Although it does have abundant resources available to each student, there are some parts where I feel that my tuition isn’t worth it. For example, we have three-hundred students in a lecture hall compared to a private university where you have, like, fifty. Besides that, I am too separated from my family and I have to pay for actual living, transportation, and food.”UC San Diego To Significantly Reduce Number of Non-Resident Students – UCSD Guardian
The good news is that if you can afford to pay $45,000 in tuition plus room and board per year and have mapped a route to your major and graduation, there are still opportunities to study at UC campuses.
Some excellent UC campuses still offer an admissions advantage for non-residents
UC Davis, Irvine, and Santa Barbara are fine universities; they also have unique concentrations and majors which may suit your academic and career goals. UC Santa Cruz also shines in some areas, despite its relative lack of popularity. Visit Santa Cruz before enrolling – it is its own world in terms of its premiere departments, location, and “vibe.”
However, those campuses, too, will face pressure in the coming years to become more accessible to local students; expect non-resident admissions rates to decline.
What are your odds of admission?
Although you may be at a disadvantage to California residents, what matters most is your odds of admission. The UC presents an unusually robust set of data from which you can gauge your chances, although you will need to dig a bit to find all of it.
Average GPAs for each campus — weighted and unweighted — can be found here: Freshman admit data | UC Admissions (universityofcalifornia.edu); choose your campus from the bottom of the page (“Admit data by campus”). For a more granular view, see Undergraduate admissions summary | University of California for admissions data sorted by ethnicity, and use the column on the right to sort by campus and residency. Note, however, that the data as of this writing stops at 2021 – the numbers next year may be quite different.
Unfortunately, some students will not be able to attend a UC. Fortunately, there are excellent alternatives available.
Can you find an equivalent academic and collegiate experience in another state?
Most flagship campuses of public universities admit a higher percentage of non-residents than the UC. See acct-2020.pdf (universityofcalifornia.edu). Do not overlook regional consortia, which may offer you considerable tuition breaks for universities in nearby states. Some of those deals will reduce tuition to the amount paid by residents. See State & Regional College Tuition Discounts (nasfaa.org) for details.
There are many other fine colleges in California
Perhaps you intend to settle in California and believe – probably correctly – that it will be easier to find a job in the state if you are already studying there. For example, internships near your college may be an essential first step into the local job market. The good news is that there are plenty of California colleges in addition to the UC.
The College Board’s “finder” (College Search – BigFuture | College Board) lists 174 colleges in California. Here are just a few of them. Note that because the UCs no longer offer financial aid to non-residents, many of these schools may be less expensive than the UC.
We start our tour with the crème de la crème. Stanford and Cal Tech need no introduction. However, do not overlook the Claremont Colleges. Harvey Mudd is one of the top STEM schools in the nation. Pomona is a classic liberal arts college, ranked #3 out of 210 by U.S. News – its selectivity is commensurate. Claremont-McKenna has been minting CEOs and international leaders since it was founded in 1946. Pitzer and Scripps are excellent liberal art schools. Students at one college can take classes at the others – the entire Claremont Colleges campus comprising these five colleges is eminently walkable. If you want to know what “old money” California looks like, this is a good place to start your college tour.
Upset that UCLA may not be within reach? All is not lost. USC is available to those with comparable credentials. Despite suffering several PR hits in recent years, the money poured into the school by one of the strongest alumni networks in the United States (yes, The Ohio State University, I see you), has enabled USC to achieve parity with UCLA in several areas — and superiority in a few.
Floating back towards admissions terra firma, mid-range choices abound. Starting in Southern California, the University of San Diego is a small Catholic school with an emphasis on building social capital. Its School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) includes a Minor in Nonprofit Leadership and Management for those interested in working for, and eventually managing, non-profits. San Diego State is also a very popular California State University (CSU) with a broader range of offerings. However, note the discussion about “impacted majors” above.
As you might expect in Los Angeles, top film schools and fine arts programs are a huge selling point. The programs at USC, Chapman University, and Loyola Marymount are favored destinations. However, this can be a very tough ticket to secure – it may be easier to get into the Ivy League than USC’s Cinema Arts program. You will also find a smattering of top art schools (e.g., Cal Arts, Otis School of Art and Design, and ArtCenter) nearby.
The admissions picture brightens considerably for students not seeking careers in the movie industry. Occidental College (founded in 1886) is a well-regarded liberal arts school with appeal to the socially conscious student and aspiring political scientist. Los Angeles is an excellent place to study society, culture, and politics.
Loyola Marymount University is a Jesuit university with a solid reputation which just happens to be located a few minutes from Manhattan Beach. Visual and performing arts students will find plenty to like here, but so will communications majors.
Speaking of the ocean, Pepperdine University is a Christian college in Malibu rated #55 by U.S. News & World Report. Note that religion is an integral part of education at Pepperdine, with three required religion classes, attendance at chapel, and a more conservative political environment than you will find at most colleges in Los Angeles. Read this to see if it may be for you: A Place of Faith | Pepperdine University | Seaver College.
Chapman University is in the city of Orange, a quiet, but central, part of the Los Angeles metro area. It used to serve mostly local students but is now seeking to attract more students from throughout California and nationwide. Although its Dodge College of Film and Media Arts is highly ranked and quite difficult to get into, the rest of the university is only moderately selective, with an average GPA of 3.77. You will be pleasantly surprised by the tuition, net of very large scholarships.
Proceeding north, potential architects and engineers should take note of Cal Polytechnic (Cal Poly), also part of the CSU system. You will find a very demanding academic environment plopped down in the middle of paradise – otherwise known as San Luis Obispo. Of course, San Luis Obispo is in the middle of nowhere, so do not plan on quick jaunts to more urban areas. Be sure that you know what you wish to study before you apply; changing majors can be quite difficult here.
Once in Silicon Valley, your choice of universities other than UC Berkeley is limited. San Jose State is a good, but very crowded, CSU offering a range of majors from engineering to — who knew? — a nationally ranked animation program. However, Santa Clara University is the most interesting alternative to Berkeley. Once a solid Jesuit school which served the local community, it has transformed itself into an educational resource for the tech industry. It has raised, and spent, hundreds of millions of dollars on buildings, programs, and talent. If you are looking for a career in Silicon Valley and have reasonably good credentials, this may be a great fit.
The rest of the Bay Area, and parts north, are less promising. USF, a good Jesuit university, will position you for internships in San Francisco. The University of the Pacific (UOP), which is in Stockton (definitely not a beach destination), is a solid choice for those with more modest academic credentials who wish to settle close to Sacramento.
North of San Francisco, the local UC is clearly the best choice. UC Davis is a 20-minute drive from Sacramento and an hour from the Bay Area (traffic permitting). The university, with a campus dominated by bike lanes, progressive politics, and some serious humidity (not just in the summer – look up tule fog), is the academic star of the region. The physical sciences programs are strong, the veterinary school is superb, and its viniculture and enology program – established in 1880 – birthed the California wine industry.
Horace Greeley had the right idea
You can absolutely still go West, even if parts of it are less welcoming than they once were. Just broaden your horizons, and a piece of paradise may be yours.