Since 1998, UC Berkeley has offered admission, on average, to 12,687 incoming freshman students. However, from the 1990s to present, the number of applicants has increased threefold. The growing disparity between the volume of applicants and the number of admitted students has dropped UC Berkeley’s acceptance rate more than a percentage point each year: In 1996, the incoming freshman class at UC Berkeley had a 45% chance of admission; in 2019, it had a 17% chance. Put another way, in 1996, any given student was competing with more than 31,000 other applicants — no small feat of its own. Fast forward to 2019, and any single student was competing with more than 106,000 other applicants (see graph).
Although the number of applicants has significantly increased over the decades, the number of students admitted to UC Berkeley has remained relatively constant. Overlaid is the acceptance rate per year (not drawn to scale).
With this drastic increase in competition, UC Berkeley’s standards for admitted students have shot up — GPAs, personal statements, extracurricular activities and, previously, test scores all play major roles in the admissions process. As any high school student applying to college can attest, however, achieving the level of excellence needed to compete with thousands of other students in all of these areas is time-consuming and difficult. Consequently, it has become common practice for many students to hire tutors, college counselors and coaches to help them get into their dream school. But this begs the question: Are colleges admitting a student or a student’s checkbook?
This issue has become increasingly relevant as the competition for higher education has grown across the nation. According to a USA Today poll from 2019, “fewer than one in five Americans believe the college admissions process is ‘generally fair’” and an additional “67 percent of respondents said that the current college application and admissions process ‘favors the rich and powerful.’” High school students across the country have voiced their concerns about colleges championing wealthier students because of their access to exclusive entities such as private tutors, schools and counselors.
UC Berkeley is no exception. On Sept. 22, 2020, the California State Auditor’s office released a report that revealed oversights in UC Berkeley’s admissions process. Throughout the period of 2013-14, the audit found that UC Berkeley was responsible for falsely admitting 55 students: 17 students were falsely admitted due to a donor connection, 11 were falsely admitted due to a staff connection and 14 students were waitlisted because of either a donor or staff connection.
According to an NPR source, “One [false admit] had babysat for a colleague of the former director of undergraduate admissions. One had a family member who was a friend of a regent. Another was the child of a major donor. One applicant's family promised a large donation. All of them were admitted.”
The audit also found that 13 students were admitted due to an athletic waiver. The campus athletics admissions process reviews applicants on much different qualifications than the general applicant pool. These different considerations allow students who may not be academically competitive in the regular admissions process to have a better chance of acceptance. California State Auditor Elaine Howle explained in the audit that the lack of staff oversight and verification of athletic ability have allowed staff to falsify students’ athletic abilities.
The majority of these inappropriate admissions occurred due to missing safeguards needed to prevent a single individual from being able to make a unilateral admission decision or validate key information about an applicant. Gaps in oversight allowed staff members with connections or those responsible for donor relations to influence admissions.
During the years 2013-14, the California State Auditor found that 55 UC Berkeley students were falsely admitted. The highest number of students falsely admitted were due to donor connections.
In March of 2019, the UC system conducted a UC systemwide internal audit. In a response to the audit, UC President Michael Drake explained that, similar to the California state audit, the internal audit revealed that the admissions processes related to athletic recruits and to admission by exception were vulnerable to improper conduct. These findings resulted in UC Berkeley and other UC campuses taking action to safeguard their admissions process, especially their athletics admissions processes.
However, Howle responded in the audit that she and the bureau believe the UC system did not make sufficient changes to safeguard its admissions process. Pointing specifically to UC Berkeley, Howle concludes in the audit, “Although both audits addressed the potential for inappropriate influence in the admissions process, as we state earlier in the report, the university’s audit did not detect the ways in which staff from the development office [donor relations] and other university staff inappropriately influenced admissions decisions at UC Berkeley.”
Howle additionally advised that staff from the development office should not be able to discuss applicants with admissions officers and recommended in the audit that regular UC-systemwide audits be conducted annually to ensure accountability. According to Howle, “[Left] unaddressed, these issues will continue to harm qualified applicants who apply to the university.”
UC Berkeley’s failure to sufficiently comply with the recommendations proposed by the audit have highlighted prejudices within the admissions system. As Howle explains in the audit, these biases support those with connections to UC campus staff and/or donors, taking opportunities away from the “lowest rated applicants for whom [the Auditor’s Office] expected campuses to have deliberately considered and documented why they should be admitted despite both their low ratings and status as ineligible for admission.”
The audit notes that “the majority of these [falsely admitted] applicants were white and at least half had an annual family income of $150,000 or more.”
The anxieties of students competing to get into college have been exacerbated by the fact that the majority of people utilizing these connections to get a leg up on their competition are of Caucasian descent and within the highest income bracket. But, despite this correlation, California voters recently shot down Proposition 16, which would reinstate the foundations of affirmative action (as initially repealed by Prop. 209 in 1996). In the failure of Prop. 16, colleges and universities around the country are once again required to use a colorblind and gender-blind admissions process.
However, in spite of Prop. 16’s failure, UC Berkeley has taken steps to support a more fair admissions process, equipped with Olufemi Ogundele, campus assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions, who, according to a Berkeley News article, believes “diversity should be at the center of an institution’s mission, not something that is additive or adjunct.”
In the most recent year, UC Berkeley admitted the highest percentage of students from underrepresented populations, including first-generation students, households that make less than $25,000 a year and minority-race students.
With Ogundele’s expertise, UC Berkeley has admitted the most ethnically diverse class in more than30 years. In a Berkeley News article, Ogundele noted that one of the biggest changes to this academic cycle was taking more contextual information about the applicants into consideration. Admissions readers were provided with more background regarding the high schools and neighborhoods from which the students were applying.
“Now … these admissions officers are in a better position to understand what the student applicants have accomplished in life, and in what context,” Ogundele said in the Berkeley News article.
Ogundele also attributed the increase in diversity to marketing tactics: UC Berkeley has recently increased emphasis on reaching out to rural and low socioeconomic areas. This strategy has allowed UC Berkeley to build and solidify relationships with high school counselors in underprivileged areas, encouraging more students in these areas to apply to UC Berkeley.
“You can actually have a diverse class that is academically excellent,” Ogundele previously told The Daily Californian. “You don’t have to compromise one for the other.”
The pie chart above displays the demographic breakdown of 2019-20, which you can compare with a pie chart breakdown from any academic year dating back to 1996-97.
Data for admission was sourced from UC Berkeley's public database Cal Answers.
This project is open-source on Github.
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