UC freshmen applications dip for a second straight year. But why?

Students depart Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA
Students depart Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA. Applications to the University of California from would-be freshmen dipped for the second year in a row.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

After more than a decade of robust growth, applications to the University of California from would-be freshmen dipped for the second year in a row while those from transfer students continued to rise, according to preliminary UC data released Tuesday.

Freshman applications fell across the board — from Californians and students from other states and countries — to 172,099, a 5.4% decline since 2018. The decline hit five of the nine undergraduate campuses at Los Angeles, Davis, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Merced.

The number of transfer students aiming to enroll, however, grew to 43,063, a 4.8% increase over 2018.


Experts said the decline in first-year applicants may signal a reality check among high school students who are daunted by the growing competition and cost of a UC freshman seat and are instead opting for a more affordable community college pathway. A cause rooted in demographics, namely a decline in the number of college-age students that has already begun hitting Northeastern states, is not expected to peak in California until about 2025, according to Nathan D. Grawe, a Carleton College professor of economics and social sciences.

Competition for UC seats has steadily intensified. Overall, the proportion of California high school graduates who apply to a UC campus has doubled from 10% in the mid-1990s to 20% today, according to Zachary Bleemer, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. And even though UC has admitted thousands more California students since then, it is not nearly enough to meet the demand.

“A very large number of high school graduates apply to UC with very little shot of getting into their preferred campuses,” Bleemer said. “So the small declines in applications to some degree is positive news for the University of California — they have to send out fewer rejection letters.”

Philippe De Nes, for instance, didn’t even bother to apply to any UC campuses last year as a senior at Downtown Magnets High School. He was a strong student in the International Baccalaureate honors program with a GPA of 3.55 overall and 4.07 for sophomore and junior years, which UC considers in its admission process. He was aiming for UCLA or UC Berkeley, he said, but given the competition, “I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get in.”

De Nes, 19, also was caught in the middle-class squeeze, with family income too high to qualify for a federal Pell Grant but too low to comfortably afford UC’s $36,000 annual cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board. He wasn’t willing to ask his parents to foot that bill — his father is a software engineer and his mother a dog walker — for anything less than a top UC campus.

So he is attending Los Angeles City College, a two-year institution that offered a year of free tuition, along with a laptop. But De Nes, a Guatemala native who earned straight A’s in his fall semester, plans to apply next year as a transfer student to UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara to pursue his passion in geography.


“I will apply to UC this time for sure because I have a 4.0 and know how to handle college-level work,” he said.

Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA vice provost of enrollment management, said her campus reflects those trends. Among Californians, freshman applications dropped to 67,877 for fall 2020, a 5% decline since 2018. She senses the decrease in applications has come from students who are less academically competitive when compared to freshmen admitted in fall 2019, whose average GPA was above 4.0 and whose SAT score was above the 90th percentile. UCLA’s admission rate last fall was 12.4%, the lowest among UC’s nine undergraduate campuses.

“More students understand what we’re looking for and are making wise decisions about whether they’re prepared to compete at UCLA,” she said.

Copeland-Morgan added that more students may be applying to fewer colleges overall, a trend she and other higher education officials are trying to encourage.

“People are recognizing the stress that high school students are under,” she said. “We’re saying to students: focus on your senior year, enjoy, there’s no need to apply to 25 institutions. Make sure it’s not how many applications you complete but what is a good fit.

“That’s the push — to create more sanity around the whole process of college applications,” she added.


At the same time, UCLA saw rising interest among prospective California transfer students, receiving 21,286 applications for fall 2020, a 12.5% increase over 2018. UCLA, and the UC system overall, have strengthened efforts in recent years to enroll one transfer student for every two freshmen and expanded programs to guarantee admission of all qualified community college students.

In addition, Gov. Gavin Newsom and several California community college districts have expanded state and local programs to help cover costs.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley credited those financial aid programs and stronger partnerships between his campuses and UC leaders for boosting the number of transfer students. The number of students who completed coursework to transfer to four-year universities has increased by about 2% over last year, he said.

“For many families, the community college pathway is an amazing option,” said Oakley, who himself attended Golden West College and transferred to UC Irvine for a bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis and design and a master’s degree in business administration.

Latinos remained the largest group of California freshman applicants at 38% followed by Asian Americans at 31%, whites at 21% and African Americans at 6%. Among both freshmen and transfer applicants, first-generation and low-income students each accounted for 47% of applicants.

Overall, UCLA remained the most popular campus, drawing a total 134,769 applications from prospective freshmen and transfer students.

But UC Irvine was the top choice for California applicants — 92,644 overall — and for students who are low-income, the first in their families to attend college, Latinos and Asian Americans.


“These outstanding numbers are a testament to our success in advancing our mission,” UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said in a statement. “We exist to provide the best education possible to the people of our state, regardless of their circumstances.”