UC expansion plan is timely as college application deadline nears

Schools are closed during Thanksgiving week in the Pasadena Unified School District but counselor Alejandra Diaz will be on duty from home. Like an on-call emergency physician, she will be busy answering numerous panicky phone calls and emails.

She will offer last-minute advice and soothing words to high school seniors facing the Nov. 30 deadline to file their college admissions applications to the University of California and Cal State systems.

"They get a little nervous before they send it in. They want reassurances that everything is OK," said Diaz, who rotates among several Pasadena high schools.

This year, she noted, brings two advantages. Nov. 30 is a regular school day in case any procrastinators require absolute final-hour aid. And more important: The UC regents last week adopted a plan that will expand the enrollment of California undergraduates by 5,000 in the fall and another 5,000 by 2018.

"It's always good news whenever they want to recruit more students, especially students in California," she said during a recent visit to John Muir High School. "Even if it is only one or two more kids per high school, it doesn't matter. More of our kids will be going to a UC, which is great."

Counselors, parents and students throughout the state report feeling more optimistic about admissions chances at UC. Next fall's increase is just 10% above the current group of 50,000 California freshmen and transfers who started at a UC this year. Still, the boost is expected to have an effect on all nine UC undergraduate campuses, including UCLA and UC Berkeley, where the demand for spots is the strongest. It is being financed in part by a $25-million use-it-or-lose-it funding bonus from the state Legislature and by phasing out UC financial aid to undergraduates from other states and nations.

In the current class of freshmen, about 60% of the 103,117 California applicants were offered a spot on at least one UC campus; that percentage appeared to be a record low, down from 79% in 1999. The odds were worst at UCLA, which accepted just 16.2% of in-state freshman applicants last year and at UC Berkeley, where the rate was 19.1%. Officials said they don't know for sure whether the upcoming enrollment growth will produce a better acceptance rate since the number of applicants may grow, affecting the formula.

Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit that works on issues of college access, said the 10,000 additional spots "are urgently needed." Her organization is scheduled to release a study next week that looks at how increasingly difficult it has become in recent years for applicants to get into the UC or Cal State of their choice. The report is expected to urge that the state fund much larger increases in enrollment and that traditional enrollment guidelines be broadened.

Muir, where 94% of the students are black or Latino and 80% qualify for free or reduced price lunches, received some special UC attention last week. UCLA admissions officials and alumni visited the school as part of a statewide program called Achieve UC, which encourages applicants from high schools with less-than-average college attendance rates. The event in the packed school auditorium felt like a pep rally, complete with balloons of UCLA's blue and gold colors on the stage.

Muir already is in UCLA's orbit since it is located near the Rose Bowl, home ground for UCLA football. And Muir's most famous alumnus, Jackie Robinson, went on to UCLA and then was the first black player on a major league baseball team.

"I want to see you all as Bruins. We want to see you on our campus like Jackie Robinson, as a Bruin," Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA's associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, told the crowd. She warned them that "college is hard work and that hard work starts now."

She urged them all to consider attending college, even if not a UC, to take college prep classes, improve their grades and think ahead. "High school goes by very quickly," she said.

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Later, Copeland-Morgan said she and other admissions officials around the UC system were delighted about the enrollment boost, even if it meant campuses had to find extra dorm and classroom space. "I think it's going to be a real win for California students," she said.

Muir's record of sending students to UC campuses has improved much in recent years. But it still remains weak compared with more affluent schools just a few miles away in the San Gabriel Valley. Forty-three of the 189 Muir seniors this year have the grades to be UC eligible; counselors called them in throughout the fall for workshops on applications, Diaz said. The UCLA rally came at a good time to give a push to any slowpokes, she said.

Among the students attending the assembly was Diego Obregon, 17, a senior who wants to study communications or journalism in college. He had filed his applications to three Cal State campuses and was working to finish his personal statement essay for four UC campuses, including UCLA. His topic focused on how he was home schooled until the 11th grade, a theme that he thought might appeal to admissions officers but which needed some more editing as the deadline approached. He is also applying to USC and two other private colleges.

Diego said he was encouraged by the UC rally and the news about the extra students. "I think it's awesome that they are giving more students a chance to get in," he said.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

Twitter: @larrygordonlat

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 28, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Expansion timely for UC applicants - Plan to admit 5,000 more in-state students in 2016 comes as key deadline nears. - HIGHER LEARNING" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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