UC moves toward holistic review of applicants

Share via

The University of California regents on Wednesday moved to expand the use of an undergraduate admissions practice in which applicants’ grades and test scores are considered in the context of their educational opportunities and life experiences.

UCLA and UC Berkeley already use the admissions process, known as holistic review, in which an applicant’s entire file, including essays, are read and scored as a whole, rather than in pieces. At least two other UC campuses, San Diego and Irvine, are adopting the method this year, officials said.

As the university’s governing board met at UC San Diego, a regents’ committee approved the resolution that urges, but does not require, all nine undergraduate UC campuses to use holistic review in admissions decisions. Adoption by the full board is expected Thursday. No date has been set for its implementation.


Some regents said they feared broader use of holistic review might introduce too much subjectivity to the process of choosing students and could be seen as an attempt to get around the state’s ban on affirmative action. But admissions officials said the method, in use at UC Berkeley since 2001 and UCLA since 2007, is the best and fairest way to pick a freshman class from a competitive applicant pool.

Under holistic review, admissions readers come up with a single score for an applicant’s file, including information about high school courses, SAT or ACT exams, extracurricular activities, special talents and any difficulties the student overcame.

All UC campuses already must look at all parts of an application but not necessarily in a unified manner. Sometimes campuses reject good candidates by not compiling a complete picture about them, officials said, using the example of a student whose high school grades suffered after a parent’s death but then bounced up again over time.


“The goal of holistic review is to give students more thorough and fair evaluations,” said Susan Wilbur, UC’s director of undergraduate admissions. Under the system, at least two readers review each application and give it an overall score, a process she acknowledged takes more time and staffing than the more traditional approach in which an applicant’s coursework, honors classes and essays are each ranked separately.

After racially charged incidents last year at UC San Diego, including an off-campus student party that mocked Black History Month, that campus’ low enrollment of African American students became a hot topic. Soon afterward, UC President Mark G. Yudof said he wanted all campuses to use holistic review as a way to ensure that academically eligible minority and low-income applicants were not being rejected at unfair rates.

On Wednesday, UC officials insisted that the expanded use of holistic review would not boost any ethnic group’s chances relative to any other in admissions and was not a backdoor to affirmative action.


“It is not designed to look for a particular kind of new student,” Lawrence H. Pitts, UC’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said at the regents meeting.

Still, Regent George Marcus said he was concerned the public might view the change as making UC admissions more subjective. “It’s going to be damaging to the institution,” he said, adding that he wanted proof that holistic review resulted in a more academically successful freshman class.

Even if approved as expected, the broader use of holistic review may not be the most dramatic upcoming change in UC admissions policy. Starting with the fall freshman class in 2012, students will no longer need to take two SAT subject exams, although the main SAT test will still be required, and the pool of students eligible for consideration will be widened.

That larger applicant pool was approved two years ago but the university’s worsening financial situation could make that change difficult to implement. On Wednesday, Yudof raised the possibility of enrollment reductions, along with staff layoffs and program elimination, as ways to cope with Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed deep budget cuts to higher education. Brown has proposed slashing $500 million from UC’s funding, along with similar reductions for Cal State.

“The moment is fast approaching when the university no longer will be able to guarantee admission to a UC campus to all California applicants who meet the eligibility criteria,” said Yudof, who is expected in March to present a list of specific austerities for the regents to review. He said he would prefer not to increase student tuition yet again; that figure already is set to rise 8% — or $822 — in the fall.

But Yudof said the university’s budget problem was worse than just the reduction proposed by Brown. UC, he said, also faces $500 million in additional costs for the next academic year, including increased pension contributions, higher energy costs and contracted pay raises.