UC Berkeley must say yes to graduation caps, no to major caps

Illustration of graduation caps that read "No major caps"
Vivian Du/Staff

It is no secret that getting into UC Berkeley has always been challenging. With an acceptance rate of 15.1 percent, very few of the school’s applicants make the cut to study here. But even if you get in, getting a degree in the area you want from UC Berkeley is becoming just as hard.

Capped majors are the reason. When a department cannot accommodate the high demand for its major, it establishes a minimum GPA aimed to stunt growth. Major caps are an absolute nightmare for any student wishing to acquire a major in these impacted departments. While at other, non-UC schools, students have the comfort of knowing one bad grade doesn’t matter, at UC Berkeley, one bad grade might derail a student’s entire academic path.

It is crucial for students to revolt against this system, especially now that UC Berkeley finally has a balanced budget. 2019 marks the first year since 2016 that the campus is without a budget deficit. Now the campus can afford to focus less on taking away opportunities and resources from the student body and more on giving to it. Increasing capacity and equity in high-demand majors must be part of the conversation.

According to the campus Office of Planning and Analysis, or OPA, the computer science department first introduced a major cap in 1980 to control growth. Many other departments soon followed suit, and currently 12 majors are capped, including economics, media studies and psychology. The computer science department, pioneer of major caps at UC Berkeley, started out with a modest GPA cap of 2.7, which has ballooned to a current 3.3.

Major caps fail at controlling growth in high-demand majors, which defeats their entire purpose. A research paper by the OPA makes it clear that capped majors continue to grow past capacity, despite increased hurdles placed in the way of declaration.

Additionally, major caps bring their own multitude of problems, which the OPA seems not to have collected data on. Foremost, they harm students who come from less privileged backgrounds. These students may need a couple of years at UC Berkeley to get used to how college works or may have less of the background knowledge needed to thrive in prerequisite classes, while students from elite high schools are able to hit the ground running.

Students who must work part time or who are parents are also disadvantaged, as they have less time to spend studying for classes and thus receive lower grades in comparison to their classmates.

Major caps also encourage an environment where grades are given a disproportionate amount of importance. This comes at the cost of other aspects of education such as teamwork, creativity and exploration. By enforcing major caps, UC Berkeley is reinforcing the idea that grades are the most important aspect of an individual, which is far from the truth.

Given UC Berkeley’s rich history of social change and innovation, it is surprising that values such as curiosity are not equally valued. Every time a student chooses to take fewer classes per semester, to take “easy A” courses, to join fewer clubs, to go to fewer academic and social events, all to improve the chances of getting the best grades possible, UC Berkeley moves away from its legacy of creating change-makers.

When I got admitted here, my father told me, “When change happens in the world, it always starts at Berkeley.” Two years later, when I look around, I don’t feel like I am in the Berkeley my father was imagining from Pakistan. I don’t think that a student body busy chasing grades would choose to march for free speech or against the Vietnam War.

The College of Letters and Science promises students a liberal arts education, which means all freshmen enter the college without a predetermined major so they can explore different paths. UC Berkeley tells prospective students that the goal of the campus’s selection process is to identify applicants who are most likely to contribute to Berkeley’s intellectual and cultural community as well as the wider world.

Contributing to society is a messy road. It involves breaking away from the status quo and daring to be adventurous. It means being persistent, hardworking and endlessly curious. It means that sometimes grades have to take a back seat. It means spikes in academic transcripts. UC Berkeley should give its students the freedom to be messy in their academic journeys.

The computer science and engineering department of UC San Diego recognized the harm caused by major caps and abolished them in 2017. UC Berkeley should follow UCSD’s lead in acknowledging that major caps are detrimental to the student body. Then, it should work toward alternate ways of controlling growth or, even better, providing more resources to accommodate growth.

Abolish major caps. We have the right to learn. We have the right to explore. We have the right to fail and try again. We have the right.

Dua Shamsi is a UC Berkeley student.