The 4% Solution


When the University of California Board of Regents recently decided to guarantee seats for qualified students from the top 4% of their high school class, they touched off a wave of anxiety among many students and parents.

Some worry that the new rules will cut out students with strong qualifications at the best high schools because they don’t rank in the top 4% of their class. A few parents have suggested that they might even send their child to a poorly performing high school so they would have an easier time making it into the top ranks.

One group of high school students in wealthy Marin County was so concerned that it sent a petition to the regents urging them to reject the plan because they feared it would kill the students’ chances of getting into the prestigious public university.


None of this will happen. Yet despite assurances from UC officials that the new plan will have little effect on admissions and will not take seats away from any students who qualify under the old rules, public confusion continues.

Drawing from UC documents and university officials, here are answers to frequent questions:

Do I have to be in the top 4% of my high school to be eligible for UC admission?

No. The University of California is required by law to make freshman seats available to the top 12.5% of all California high school graduates. At some high schools, more than half the graduating class will fall into that group; at others, the percentage will be much lower.

To hit this target group, the university has set minimum eligibility requirements.

These criteria, for now, are a 3.3 grade-point average in high school, satisfactory completion of all required college-prep courses, and taking the SAT and SAT II achievement tests. A student’s GPA can dip as low as 2.82, but then that student must have a higher score on the SATs.

But these criteria have brought in only the top 11.1% of high school graduates. So UC officials have come up with the top 4% plan that, by their estimates, will bring in an additional 3,600 students and thus expand the eligible pool to the top 12.5%.


If I’m in the top 4%, does that mean I’m guaranteed enrollment at the campus of my choice?

No. Think of UC admissions as a two-step process.

The first step is becoming eligible for admission by meeting the minimum criteria mentioned above.

The second hurdle is being selected by at least one of the UC campuses, at Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz or Riverside.

The competition is ferocious at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego. It is less competitive at the other campuses, and UC Riverside accepts all eligible students who apply.

Students who squeak by the minimum eligibility requirements are more likely to land seats at the fast-growing campuses--such as UC Riverside or UC Santa Cruz--than at those campuses that turn away thousands of applicants every year.


Will the new 4% rule dramatically alter the number of students attending the University of California?

University officials estimate that an additional 3,600 students will become eligible under the plan, and only about half will choose to enroll at one of the eight undergraduate campuses. This year’s freshman class was 46,000 students.

Officials plan a slight enrollment increase at some campuses to accommodate the additional students.


When will the top 4% plan take effect?

It will take effect for students enrolling as freshmen in the fall of 2001. That means the first affected students will be those who are now sophomores in high school.


Who will determine the top 4% and how will it be done?

UC officials said they will rank students by compiling their grade-point averages based on 11 college-prep courses completed by the end of the high school junior year.


How will students know they are in the top 4%?

UC officials plan to send letters to all students in the top 4% of their high schools, informing them that they are eligible for UC admission. The letters will go out as soon as possible after the end of the junior year.


So once I get the notice that I’m in the top 4%. I can blow off the SAT and classes in my senior year?

No. Students ranked in the top 4% will also be informed that to remain eligible for UC, they must submit an application, take the SAT and the SAT II achievement tests and get Cs or better in all remaining college-prep courses required for admission.


What happens if I attend a private high school?

The same rules will apply. Even though the program was set up for California’s 863 public high schools, UC officials said they will make the top 4% plan available to private schools.


Why is the university doing this?

UC officials want to attract more students from inner-city and rural high schools, which historically send few students to UC. Although it will bring only a slight increase in blacks and Latinos, UC officials hope it will inspire more of these minority students to view UC as within reach. Furthermore, they hope the plan will stimulate lagging high schools to improve their programs for university-bound students.


Are there other changes in the works?

Yes. UC will be adding a class in visual or performing arts to its list of required college-prep courses, which include four years of English, three years of math, two years of laboratory science, two years of history/social science and two years of a foreign language. The change will first apply to today’s high school freshmen, who will be entering college in the fall of 2003.

In addition, UC officials are considering cutting in half the extra grade points awarded to advanced-placement and honors courses. They also want to establish minimum SAT scores for all students, even for those with GPAs of 3.3 or above.