UC Berkeley must slash new enrollment by a third unless high court intervenes

UC Berkeley has been denied relief from a court-ordered enrollment freeze. It may be forced to mail out 5,100 fewer acceptance letters next month.

aerial view of Sather Tower and Campanile Esplanade at UC Berkeley
Aerial view of the center of UC Berkeley. A judge has ordered UC Berkeley to cap enrollment at 2020-2021 levels. To make that number, Cal will make 5,100 fewer offers for admission in the spring than originally expected. Credit: UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley will have to significantly reduce the number of undergraduate and transfer students it admits for 2022-23 unless it gets the California Supreme Court to intervene in a lower court ruling, the university said Monday.

About 5,100 fewer high school seniors and transfer students will be offered a place at Cal for the next academic year because of an Alameda County Superior Court ruling that ordered UC Berkeley to freeze enrollment at the same level as 2020-21. The 24% drop in offer letters would bring about 6,450 new students to Cal — about 32% fewer than in a typical year.

UC Berkeley applied for a stay of the decision to the California First Court of Appeal, but the court turned down the university’s request on Thursday, Feb. 10.

Now the university is hoping that the state’s highest court will intervene — and fast — as Cal needs to mail out the bulk of its admission offers March 23.

“If left intact, the court’s unprecedented decision would have a devastating impact on prospective students, university admissions, campus operations, and UC Berkeley’s ability to serve California students by meeting the enrollment targets set by the State of California,” UC Berkeley said in a statement.

The drop in student enrollment would also cost Cal about $57 million in revenue, according to UC Berkeley.

The order to cap enrollment at the 2020-21 level of 42,347 as opposed to the current enrollment of 45,057 is the result of a lawsuit filed in June 2019 by a neighborhood group, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, against UC Berkeley, the Regents of the University of California and others. The city of Berkeley had been party to the lawsuit until it withdrew after signing an $82.6 million letter of agreement in July with the university.

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods had argued that the university needed to study the environmental impacts of increasing its enrollment by more than 30% to a projected 44,735 students by 2022-23. (Enrollment has actually surpassed that.) UC Berkeley did not do a separate EIR on the enrollment increase but instead examined it as part of an EIR for the Upper Hearst Development project, which will add a new building for the Goldman School of Public Policy and adjacent housing for about 150 people. UC Berkeley also focused in the EIR on the impacts of the increased enrollment to the main campus rather than the city.

On Aug. 23, 2021, Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman ordered UC Berkeley to toss out the EIR it did for the Upper Hearst project and start anew, in part to examine the impact on Berkeley of the increased enrollment. The plaintiffs, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, argued that Cal has not built sufficient housing for its new students, exacerbating the city’s housing crisis and increasing homelessness.

Currently, UC Berkeley only houses 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students — the lowest percentage in the UC system. (The average across the system is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students.) UC Berkeley has plans to build 11,730 beds in the next 16 years but that would still leave 70% of Cal students to find a place to sleep outside the Cal system.

At the time of the ruling, and today, UC Berkeley has decried Seligman’s ruling. Traditionally, EIRs are required when new buildings or projects are built, not when a university adds students, Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman said in 2019.

Measuring that impact has proved difficult, as it is amorphous, according to Mogulof.

“The court’s decision was so inconsistent with existing law, and so unprecedented, that there was no way to satisfy it, that there was no way to resolve all of the outstanding issues in time for this year’s admissions cycle,” Mogulof wrote in an email. “For example: We were ordered to analyze the impact of enrollment growth on homelessness, and there are no existing tools or methods to do that.”

Consequently, UC Berkeley appealed Judge Seligman’s ruling to the Court of Appeals on Oct. 18. Often when an appeal is made, a ruling is stayed. UC Berkeley had hoped the appeals court would postpone the enrollment cap, but it didn’t. It wasn’t until Jan. 28 that the university filed for an emergency stay, which the Court of Appeal denied. The judges, in fact, chided the university for its slow response to the ruling.

“We note that the judgment in this case was entered August 23, 2021,” the Court of Appeal docket says. “The Regents filed an appeal from that judgment on October 18, 2021, yet they waited more than three months before seeking a stay or supersedeas. Other than to claim that either they or their counsel did not understand the nature of the judgment from which the appeal is taken, they offer no explanation for this lengthy delay.”

The appeals court is scheduled to hear the case later this year.

Masses of students at UC Berkeley
Students walking through Sather Gate at Sproul Plaza in 2019. Credit: Jef Poskanzer

But time is of the essence on deciding how many students UC Berkeley should admit, so Cal is asking the California Supreme Court to stay Seligman’s ruling.

Phil Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, said in a court document that Cal admits so many out-of-state students that it could reduce those numbers — and hold the number of graduate students to their 2019 numbers — and still admit all the California students who apply.

“UC’s own data show that UC can easily accommodate the court-ordered enrollment cap without harming in-state student prospects by limiting offers to out-of-state, international, and certificate program students,” Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods said in a press release. “In 2021, UCB enrolled 3,429 additional students for whom UC has no obligation to serve under the California Master Plan for Higher Education. Between 2005 and 2018, UCB increased student enrollment by 9,155, from 31,800 to 40,955. In the 2019-20 academic year, UCB increased student enrollment to 43,185. In the 2020-21 academic year, UCB student enrollment fell by 858 students to 42,347, or a 1.9% decrease. In the 2021-22 academic year, UCB increased student enrollment to 45,036 or an increase over pre-pandemic levels of 1,851 or 4.2%.”

UC Berkeley is pushing back against the enrollment cap and is also arguing that student enrollment levels in 2020-21 were abnormally low because of the pandemic and using those numbers will be extremely difficult for the university.

“This court-mandated decrease in enrollment would be a tragic outcome for thousands of students who have worked incredibly hard to gain admission to Berkeley,” according to Cal’s statement.

To comply with Seligman’s ruling, Cal would have to only enroll 42,347 next academic year versus the 45,057 who are currently enrolled.

“In a typical year, the campus offers admission to approximately 21,000 freshmen and transfer students, and enrolls about 9,500 of them,” according to UC Berkeley. “Based on the usual ‘yield’ rates at Berkeley – the number of students who accept an offer of admission — a reduction of at least 5,100 in undergraduate admission offers would be needed in order to reduce by 3,050 students the overall enrollment level that had been planned for 2022-23.”

It is too late to reduce the number of graduate students since acceptances for higher-level programs have already been sent out.

Cal would lose about $57 million from the decreased enrollment, “which would impact our ability to deliver instruction, provide financial aid for low- and middle-income students, adequately fund critical student services, and maintain our facilities.”

UC President Michael Drake told an Assembly subcommittee on education financing today that UC wants to increase enrollment across all its campuses by 20,000 students by 2023. But the lawsuit against Cal could make that more difficult.

“This could impact students and families across California who would be denied access to a UC education,” said Drake.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.