Why California students keep flocking to Berkeley

While rising tuition rates and out-of-state enrollments have garnered headlines, a record number of freshman applications for the fall semester confirms that UC Berkeley remains a destination of choice for a growing number of California’s college-bound high-school seniors.

“The national standing of Berkeley as a leading university, alongside the many ways we try to support those who need help to afford college, is very attractive, and that promise is something that really resonates with families,” says Anne De Luca, acting director of undergraduate admissions at Berkeley.

Freshman applications for the 2012-13 academic year at Berkeley topped 61,000, a 16 percent jump over the total number of freshman applications for 2011-12, according to preliminary undergraduate-admissions data released last week.

While applications from students outside the state increased 47 percent to almost 21,000, the campus continues to attract the largest proportion of its applications from inside the Golden State, and the number of California high-school students applying to Berkeley climbed more than 2,000 this year to nearly 41,000.

“Given the economic challenges that families face, the issues facing higher education and the declining number of high school students in this state, we are pleased to see an increase in applications from California students,” De Luca says.

Last year, more than 77,000 prospective students and their families toured the Berkeley campus, with nearly 12,000 visitors attending informational sessions offered by the admissions office.

English teacher DeMetrius Holmes led some 30 seniors from Apple Valley High School in the Inland Empire on one such tour of the Berkeley campus last November.

“The reaction of the kids to the experience of visiting a great school like UC Berkeley is tremendous,” says Holmes. “They’re awestruck, and when we get back home, they’re on fire, really inspired, and motivated to finish their college applications process.”

A UCLA alumnus, Holmes runs a college-preparation program for low-income and minority high-school students in underserved communities.

“I have students in my program who come from some very difficult situations, so it’s more than just academic support, it’s about being a role model, a mentor and an advocate for them,” he says.

A handful of Holmes’ students applied to UC Berkeley this year and are “waiting hopefully” for an acceptance letter.

“Yes, it’s a lot of money, but it’s more than worth the cost,” Holmes says. “Not only is a degree valuable in terms of getting a job, it’s such a pivotal time of life. The experiences you walk away with are priceless.”

Expanding outreach

A systemwide change in standardized-testing requirements, designed to broaden the applicant pool, likely was a factor in encouraging more Californians than ever to apply for admission this year, say UC administrators.

Applications from students in underserved communities across the state increased more than 13 percent, and the number of underrepresented minorities applying to Berkeley jumped almost 18 percent this year to more than 14,600.

At Berkeley, officials intensified their use of electronic communications tools as part of an expanded outreach effort — first rolled out during the fall 2010 admissions cycle — to connect with a broader range of prospective students and increase campus diversity.

“Over the past several years, we have done some very focused work to reach out to schools in underserved communities, those that have lost college counselors due to K-12 budget cuts, those that have low college-going rates and that may have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, to encourage more students to consider UC Berkeley as a good choice and a real option,” De Luca says.

Admissions officials held webinars to help prospective students navigate the admissions process, and employed video chats and other online resources to offer tailored information on admissions, academic offerings, extracurricular activities and student life.

The campus’s virtual admissions-advising tool “Ask Oski,” for instance, handled more than 80,000 questions from prospective students last year. Another popular online tool, “Picture Yourself at Berkeley” allows prospective students to create their own personalized web page where they can find out what it takes to become a “Golden Bear.”

Staff also hosted virtual college fairs for students unable to visit the campus, and used social-media tools like Twitter to announce upcoming deadlines and campus events.

The new-media outreach initiative augments more traditional recruitment activities, such as campus tours, regional college fairs and high-school visits. The admissions office also deploys an extensive group of alumni across the state who represent Berkeley in talking to students at high-school events, while many current Berkeley students return to their home communities to talk with high-school seniors about their experiences as Cal students.

“To some degree, outreach remains an in-community effort driven by people power, but we’re finding the response to these electronic resources is really on the rise as students discover how convenient and useful they can be,” De Luca says.

In-state students ‘the bedrock’

Access has long been a core element of the teaching mission at Berkeley, and the campus remains committed to bolstering financial support and reducing barriers to entry across communities.

Last year, Berkeley enrolled as many low-income students as all eight Ivy League universities combined. More than 35 percent of undergraduates — some 9,000 students whose families’ incomes were less than $45,000 — received federal Pell grants.

“Even though the state hasn’t been able to invest in the same way it did in the past, I think the campus is making a concerted effort to support applications from California students,” De Luca says.

This year, Berkeley became the first public university in the nation to provide comprehensive financial aid to middle-class families with the launch of the Berkeley Middle Class Access Plan, which caps parent contributions toward undergraduate education costs at 15 percent of family income.

Although MCAP was not in place in time to affect 2012 applications, newly admitted students will be eligible to receive assistance under the new program, which could benefit up to 6,000 students this year. 

The new program expands existing support programs, such as the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which covers tuition costs for in-state students from families with incomes of less than $80,000.

“Our lowest-income students receive an immense amount of financial support to go to school, and with the introduction of MCAP this year we are extending the reach of support to middle-income families making $140,000,” De Luca says.

California students continue to make up the majority of Berkeley’s applicants, and while the number of out-of-state and international students has grown significantly over recent years, the campus has managed to maintain the number of in-state undergraduates enrolled at roughly 21,000 during the last decade.

“We want to make sure that families in California know that they are still our first priority,” De Luca says. “Many people think we’re at 50-50 now, but we’re so far from that, and our ultimate goal remains an 80-20 balance, where California students continue to be the bedrock of this campus.”