UC Berkeley sees increase in minority applicant numbers during COVID-19 pandemic

Photo of Sather Gate
Joe Sison/Staff
As of January 2021, there were 203,700 fall freshman applicants to the UC system. This is a record high number for the UC system.

Related Posts

The UC system received a record high number of undergraduate applicants for fall 2021 admission, including an increase in the number of applicants of color.

In 2020, the UC system saw 172,308 fall freshman applicants, but in 2021, that number jumped to 203,700 applicants as of January 2021, according to a UC Office of the President, or UCOP, press release. UCOP spokesperson Ryan King noted in an email that fall 2021 admissions data will not be finalized until this summer.

“Our record number of applications is a testament to the resilience of students and their families as well as their undeterred focus on higher education,” said UC President Michael Drake in the press release. “Californians continue to see us as the pathway for a better future.”

Though conclusions cannot yet be drawn regarding the reasons for this record increase in applicants, the pandemic did cause admission requirements to change in ways that might have influenced applicant numbers.

For fall 2021 applicants, the SAT/ACT testing requirement was waived in March 2020, according to a press release from 2020. This was done in an effort to minimize the effects of COVID-19 on applicants who might have had their standardized testing plans interrupted due to online education and rescheduling.

The UC system will remain test optional through the 2022 admissions cycle, and the UC Board of Regents decided to eliminate the SAT/ACT requirement entirely by 2025 for California students, according to the UCOP press release.

The UC system will be test blind in 2023 and 2024, according to the press release. This means applicants will be able to submit a test score, but it will only be used for purposes including course selection, scholarships and statewide admissions guarantee eligibility.

“The standardized test requirement in the admission process has long been questioned and it is an unintended consequence of the pandemic that tests are now under intense scrutiny,” said campus professor in the Graduate School of Education department Zeus Leonardo in an email. “I believe the standardized tests’ future for admissions is shaky and this may be good news in attempts to ameliorate long-standing disparities in UC admissions. A more holistic look at student applicants is likely a better way to go.”

According to recent data, students of color were less likely to apply to and enroll in universities than in past years, said Tolani Britton, a campus assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, in an email. She added that students of color might have added responsibilities at home and “less fiscal stability.”

However, she noted that the UC system saw an increase in the number of applicants of color and an overall 16% increase in systemwide applications.

“In some ways, you have these opposing effects. It is likely that the change in testing requirements incentivized students to apply,” Britton said in the email. “Given that we saw an increase in the number of applicants and admissions of students of color, the change to the standardized test requirements are certainly an important step in increasing equity in access.”

Leonardo echoed Britton’s sentiments about inequities resulting from standardized testing, adding that test outcomes are not a reliable predictor of success in college.

The test-optional policy, he noted, offsets inequities and setbacks experienced by underrepresented minority, or URM, applicants due to the pandemic.

“The pandemic forms a continuous arc with already existing racialized inequities,” Leonardo said in his email. “Often attending under-resourced schools, including under-staffed academic and mental health-related counseling services, URMs experience the pandemic as an exacerbating force that sets them back even further.”

Leonardo said in his email that these inequities likely appeared on standardized test results. Even if college-aged URMs do not contract COVID-19 at “alarming rates,” he said those close to them such as family members are infected at high rates, causing stress that interferes with URMs’ abilities to focus on schoolwork and the college application process.

Amid the struggles brought on from the pandemic, most UC Berkeley graduate programs also saw an increase in overall applications and in URM applications for the 2021 cycle. According to Lisa García Bedolla, UC Berkeley’s vice provost for graduate studies, UC Berkeley experienced an 82% increase in URM master’s applicants and a 42% increase in URM doctoral applications.

As the GRE graduate school entry exam was moved online due to COVID-19, more than 100 of UC Berkeley’s graduate programs made the GRE optional at Bedolla’s urging. Normally, only 42 graduate departments do not require the GRE.

“Although some applications/admissions decisions remain outstanding, it looks like this fall we will be welcoming our most diverse entering graduate class in a decade,” Bedolla said in an email.

Anishi Patel is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anishipatel.