How two public California universities handled a surprising influx of freshmen
This year, two public California universities handled relatively large incoming freshman class applicants very differently, shedding light on the challenges and possibilities that arise when more students want in than expected.
On one hand, there's the University of California-Irvine, which rescinded 499 applications due to transcript issues and poor senior year grades. On Aug. 2, the UC Irvine chancellor reversed 290 students' admissions decisions, re-admitting those with missing transcripts, leaving the fate of the remaining 209 students hanging in the balance.
At the same time, over the summer, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo projected it would have its largest freshman class ever, at 5,000 to 5,200, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Yet Cal Poly rescinded the acceptances of just 227 students, some for failing to complete coursework.
Why did these two universities accept unusually large incoming freshman classes, and get larger than anticipated acceptances?
"We term that a good problem, to have more students than you need (rather) than too few. However, it's a problem," says higher education expert Tom Green of American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Green says he has witnessed some instances of more students than expected saying "yes" in past years -- but not to this level. "That's probably happened, over 23 years, three or four times, and they were typically small numbers over -- not hundreds, but maybe 10 to 20 to 30. All of those presented challenges," he tells USA TODAY College. "I think what was unusual in the Irvine and the SLO case were the numbers. The big numbers over, that's what's a little more unusual."
Universities typically use several metrics of interest to gauge student intentions, Green says, but there was an X factor this year: an earlier application for financial aid.
Usually, Green says, low-income students tend to apply to college relatively late in the cycle, "when they have a better idea of what they can afford in the fall."
But, he says, "Now that we have the earlier FAFSA filing date in October, those low-income students are getting answers from universities in December or January, so, months before they would have gotten it in the past." Knowing sooner about financial aid gives students a better picture, earlier on, of whether they can accept an offer.
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It's not only a system-wide change like the changed FAFSA deadline that can throw forecasts off.
“Most things in university admissions tend not to change dramatically year over year," Ian Fisher, director for educational counseling at College Coach, tells USA TODAY College. "And so you can pretty much bet on things being fairly consistent.” But a university changing something in its application process can spark unexpected outcomes, he says.
And this year Cal Poly did change its process: It eliminated its "early decision" option because it found that it had treated low-income students unfairly.
Vice president of student affairs Keith Humphrey says Cal Poly's increase in students saying "yes" to their acceptance offers this year can be attributed to the removal of early decision. A total of 56,942 students applied to Cal Poly this year, including first-time freshmen and transfers.
Humphrey says Cal Poly is accommodating this year's larger-than-usual freshman class by spending $7.3 million on furniture and wireless access services. Four-person bedrooms in the campus apartments will be converted to doubles to accommodate eight total students.
Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier told USA TODAY College in an email, "Once it became clear that acceptance totals were higher than predicted, the university did not consider canceling admissions offers simply to reach its target enrollment number. Doing so would not be in accordance to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, to which Cal Poly adheres in his admissions practices."
Moving forward, Lazier said Cal Poly "will learn from this year and, given the better understanding we have of the impact of eliminating Early Decision, will institute several new measures and practices to help ensure we do not experience another larger-than-anticipated incoming class."
He says the university's overall enrollment will decrease next year to achieve the goal of keeping total enrollment to 21,500 students — the number of students in 2016 — and will decrease the 2018 incoming freshman class to 4,500.
Lazier added that Cal Poly is "also reviewing and working to refine our data management systems to ensure our future modeling and estimates are as accurate as possible."
UC Irvine, which processed 104,000 applications for the incoming class, is looking at taking similar measures after admitting a record-breaking class freshman class of 6,552 students, according to spokesman Tom Vasich.
Irvine is currently reviewing its admissions process with the goal of ensuring that a large number of applications do not get rescinded in the future, according to a press release from chancellor Howard Gillman.
Still, speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Thomas A. Parham, vice-chancellor of student affairs at UC Irvine, debunked the "the rumors on social media is that Irvine had these 800 extra students and they’re willy-nilly snatching admissions back because they can’t accommodate them,” adding, “It isn't true. We spend time trying to get kids access, not deny access.”
Megan Schellong is a student at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a USA TODAY College correspondent.
This story originally appeared on the USA TODAY College blog, a news source produced for college students by student journalists. The blog closed in September of 2017.