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UC Merced to guarantee freshman admission to eligible local students, a first for the system

Passersby walk UC Merced's campus
UC’s newest and smallest campus comes into its own as it breaks ground on a major expansion. A new program aims to expand access for local students.
(Tomas Ovalle)

UC Merced announced Monday that it would guarantee a freshman seat to eligible local students, the first University of California campus to do so in an effort to expand college access in one of the state’s most underserved areas.

University officials are aiming to motivate more students in the San Joaquin Valley — which lags behind other California regions in high school graduation rates — to pursue college. Only 30% of Merced Union High School District students complete the college preparatory coursework required for UC admission, said Charles Nies, UC Merced’s vice chancellor of student affairs.

"[This] is not a free pass,” UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz said Monday at El Capitan High School in Merced. “It is our way of saying to young people ... that make the grade, that have the wherewithal, that make an effort that we’ll have a place for you.”

The plan comes amid growing national and state pressure to increase college access, especially to disadvantaged students.

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Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a “dual admission” system that would grant an admission guarantee into UC or California State University to high school graduates who do not gain immediate freshman entry, but could transfer after they complete required community college coursework. By giving them conditional admission upfront, proponents say, students would be more likely to stay on the path to a four-year degree.

Only one in five students who say they intend to transfer do so within four years, according to a study last year by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The UC Merced plan could provide campus access to hundreds more Merced students who would otherwise not be admitted under UC’s current program of guaranteeing spots to the top 9% of high school students. Under the agreement with the Merced Union High School District, juniors who complete 15 prescribed college preparatory courses and maintain a weighted 3.5 GPA with no grades lower than a C would be assured a spot beginning in fall 2022.

Nies said there was a “really good chance” that UC Merced would expand the admission guarantee to students beyond the local area but said it was too early to say which areas that might include. He added, however, that Muñoz recently spoke with L.A. Unified officials about increasing college access, especially for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

The UC Merced plan also is aimed at simplifying the path to college for high school students. A first-generation student himself, Nies said he had myriad questions about what courses to take for college admission, for instance, or how to fill out financial aid forms. The admission guarantee will help students better understand the process — and feel more confident about it.

“That anxiety level ... that guessing game will be eliminated,” said Constantino Aguilar, Merced Union’s assistant superintendent of educational services. “They will have a very clear map.”

Officials also hoped the program would encourage local students to stay in the area to help build up the San Joaquin Valley community.

UC Merced junior Erika Murillo Candelas has done just that, living at home with her family while majoring in cognitive sciences with plans to pursue a graduate degree. She said it would have been difficult for her to leave the area because of family responsibilities, such as caring for siblings, and the extra costs of living elsewhere would have forced her to take out student loans. A guaranteed path to UC Merced could encourage others who need to stay local and aim higher than high school, she said.

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“This is going to be a really good opportunity for local students who have not even considered going to college,” she said.

Merced is the youngest, smallest and one of the most diverse of the UC system’s nine undergraduate campuses. Among its 9,000 students, 74% are the first in their families to attend college, 63% are low-income and 60% are underrepresented minorities.

The campus is known for its undergraduate research opportunities, environmentally sustainable practices and a stunning expansion that has nearly doubled its footprint with state-of-the-art buildings.

Merced’s admission rate of 72% is the highest in the UC system and it is currently the only campus that accepts students admitted to the system but not to their preferred campuses. Nies said he expects the campus to continue accepting such students, even with the new local admission guarantee and a record number of direct applications to Merced for fall 2021.


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