- The number of students applying to the University of California System as freshmen for the fall of 2019 dropped 3% year-over-year. It's the first decline in 15 years for the college system, the Los Angeles Times reported, but a familiar trend in other regions and, some say, a sign of things to come.
- Preliminary enrollment data showed the total number of applicants dropped from 181,918 to 176,530, driven by declines at three undergraduate campuses: Berkeley (2.5%), UCLA (2.1%) and Santa Cruz (1.3%).
- Reasons for the decrease could include the disruption caused by the recent wildfires, restrictive immigration policies, fewer high school graduates and more students enrolling in community college due to a free tuition waiver, the Times reported. The system has also been encouraging students to apply to fewer, more targeted colleges.
The situation isn't entirely bleak. Six UC colleges saw freshman applications increase. The system's newest campus, UC Merced, had the biggest gain at 2.6%. It has also been the most successful at reaching and enrolling Latinos, now the state's largest ethnic group. It also enrolls the system's largest share of low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.
In this way, Merced is emblematic of the bigger challenges facing the UC system. Writes The New York Times, "The future of the state depends on whether the University of California can grow to be more like Merced, and the future of Merced depends on whether it can grow to be more like other campuses."
Other campuses that saw gains are San Diego and Santa Barbara (1.2% each), Riverside (0.8%), Irvine (0.6%) and Davis (0.1%).
The number of high school graduates nationwide is expected to rise slightly over the next few years before trending downward after 2025, losing about 260,000 graduates through 2032, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. California is expected to mirror that trend.
Beyond a decrease in high school graduates, experts attribute current and future enrollment declines to a strong job market and the widespread attention to high tuition costs and the growing student debt load.
Smaller colleges have turned to consolidation or closure as a result of the financial difficulties spurred by the loss of tuition revenue. Larger institutions, too, have consolidated in order to streamline operations and reduce costs. The University of Wisconsin System is underway with consolidating 13 two-year colleges into seven four-year colleges, while the University of Georgia System has been merging campuses for several years.
Colleges across the country have enlisted several strategies to address the prospect of enrollment declines. Those include expanding their recruitment prospects to include more adult, low-income, out-of-state and international students; building amenity-rich facilities on campus; cutting posted tuition prices and offering more grant aid; and examining ways to improve retention.
For the UC System, staving off enrollment declines may rest on increasing access to its top campuses. (It's worth noting that the state's 1996 affirmative action ban had the biggest impact on diversity at the system's most selective universities.)
"You see across the UC System a growing recognition that the demographic future of California cannot just be represented on one or two or three of its campuses," UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland told Education Dive last year. "It has to be spread across all of the campuses, from the oldest to the youngest."