The University of California System is one of the more interesting, and educationally successful experiments in public education. Most recently, a task force for the system investigated the possibilities for its schools to switch from test mandatory to test optional admissions.
. The task force report advised against going test optional for these reasons:
An issue that I saw, but was not covered, was enrollment limitations on each campus. The system’s 1960 master plan proposed that no campus, existing or planned, have a total enrollment no larger than 27,500. Back then, five campuses had not opened: Irvine, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. Today, enrollments have surpassed 27,500 on seven campuses. Riverside and Santa Cruz will not approach that number for some time. But these campuses admitted less than half of the students who applied to be freshmen in the fall of 2018. Merced will surpass 10,000 undergraduates within the next five years. It’s acceptance rate for the freshman class that arrived in the fall of 2018: 66 percent.
Without the opening of new campuses in Southern California, UCLA’s enrollment was expected to surpass 52,000 by 1975. With them, enrollment is at 44,400 as of this fall. Without the opening of the campus in Santa Cruz, and the growth of the campus at Davis, UC Berkeley’s enrollment was expected to surpass 43,000 by 1975. With those campuses, it has taken 45 more years to reach that number. However, student-faculty ratios are high, 18 to 1 at UC-Berkeley, almost 20 to 1 at UCLA.
In 1960 California’s population, then just over 16 million, was largely white, with immigrants barely represented. No one could predict the demographic changes that would happen six decades later. Today, the Golden State has over 37 million residents, less than 40 percent are white, and the state has a Latino majority in K-12 public schools. But while the state’s population grew and changed, the UC system did not open another campus between 1966 and 2005. That year UC Merced welcomed its first freshmen and transfer students. The change in the demographic makeup of the state has helped drive interest and support for a test optional admissions process within the UC schools.
Test optional admissions are a good idea for larger schools when admissions are less competitive, and the school is concerned about losing enrollment. That was the case when Temple University went test optional five years ago. Even with academically stronger freshman classes, Temple’s acceptance rate is still 60 percent. Within the UC system, UCLA is the most similar school to Temple in terms of undergraduate enrollment and academic offerings. But UCLA received over 113,000 applications for 6,200 seats in its 2018 freshman class. Temple received 35,500 for just over 5,000. I cannot imagine applying Temple’s Test Optional Policy—requiring additional essays—to UCLA’s admissions practices.
Temple added resources towards student success when the university went test optional. The University of California task force report proposed the same across all of the campuses. But at the same time, the report stated that no comprehensive study about the academic advising programs on each campus had taken place. Removing test scores as a requirement would likely attract more applicants to any UC campus. But it does not guarantee that the admitted students would be more likely to succeed without upgraded student success programs. A good academic advising office wants to catch students who will need tutoring and other resources as soon as they start classes, if not before. I am not convinced that the UC campuses are set up for this, especially the most selective.
Test optional admissions are also a good idea for a larger school that’s trying to expand enrollment in its region. That was the case at Southern Illinois University, a Midwestern public school in a region that is losing jobs and population. The more educated the population, the more likely the region and attract new businesses and jobs. But this is not the case in most of California. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose have relatively prosperous and diverse economies. But the public resources and the housing market are spread too thin.
Prior to their use of tests such as the ACT and SAT in the late 1940s, colleges used their own entrance exams to determine who was in, and who was not. The UC system task force proposed that possibility But its report added that it would take eight years to develop such a test, and two years to evaluate its validity. At the same time, students would need to know, through their high schools, how to prepare for such a test. While the content, costs and quality of test-prep courses for the ACT and SAT may vary, they at least exist.
I have to agree with this task force. I could not see how a system-wide test optional policy could be applied to every UC campus, given the competition for admissions, the need for more resources towards student success, and the limited opportunities to grow the student bodies at seven of these schools. The UC campuses also wrestle with the problem of impacted majors that you will not find at schools like Temple. They cannot offer “second choice” options to admit students into another major.
High school students have become more pressured to balance life, a job and school to help their families and save for college. Going test optional might give students time that could be better spent at home, school or on a job. But a test optional policy will not make it easier to gain admission to a selective UC campus. The volume of applications will only rise, admissions offices will inadequately prepared to handle it, and the resources to guide students to graduation will be more stressed. I don’t believe that the voters in California will want to spend the money to make all the moving parts work properly.
Want to get a better understanding of test optional admissions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me at 609-406-0062.
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