When Berkeley High opened its doors just a few blocks from the UC Berkeley campus in the late 1800s, it began a relationship with the university that has spanned more than a century. 

In 1900, more Berkeley High grads attended the university than any other high school in California. It was, in some sense, one of the state’s original feeder schools.

Rumor and myth swirl around how Berkeley High students fare in UC Berkeley admissions. Cal has never had a stated policy giving preferential treatment to any high school, but Berkeley High has never quite shaken its reputation as a feeder school, either. Today, families still move to Berkeley for a better education and, they hope, a better shot at the college lottery. At the same time, a competing story emerged: Maybe it was harder to get in from BHS, because admissions officers sought geographic diversity.

Students walking on the UC Berkeley campus on the first day of classes, Aug. 24, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeleyside analyzed admissions data for Berkeley High students to UC Berkeley over the past 28 years to better understand the town-gown relationship between the two institutions. 

As growing numbers of students started vying for a spot at the state’s flagship public university, admissions rates plummeted. 

But the data show Berkeley High students have, almost every year since 1994, been admitted to Cal at higher rates than the average California resident, with lower GPAs than the average California public school student admitted to the university. 

In recent years, however, those gaps have narrowed. In 2022, less than 15% Berkeley High students applying to Cal were admitted — almost identical to the statewide average. And for the second time in 28 years, BHS students admitted to Cal had higher GPAs than average. 

Admissions counselors for UC Berkeley declined to comment on the trends for this story; a Cal spokesperson said they were too busy admitting the university’s next class of freshmen — admissions letters are coming out this month and some are already out.

But by tracking changes in admissions policies during the 20th century and admit rates at UC Berkeley in the last 20 years, a story emerges of a changing relationship between the city’s two most prominent educational institutions. 

Berkeley High’s early days were in the shadow of the university

The University of California around 1900. Courtesy: Berkeley Public Library

In 1873, when the University of California opened the doors of its flagship campus in Berkeley, there was not yet a city of Berkeley, nor was there a high school to educate young people living near the university, according to Charles Wollenberg’s Berkeley: A City in History.

At first, college students and staff commuted north from Oakland by horse and buggy and, later, by steam train. As the campus community grew, so did the need for a high school. The Kellogg School opened in 1880 — named after Cal professor Martin Kellogg, who led the effort to incorporate Berkeley as a town — to serve students in elementary and middle school. Four years later, the high school was “formally christened” The Berkeley High School. It moved from Oxford Street to its current location on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 1900.

And so, Berkeley High was born in the shadow of the university. 

A crowd outside Berkeley High in 1905. Courtesy: Berkeley High Yearbook

Its purpose — to provide a college preparatory education, presumably for the children of professors and other university employees — was controversial. 

Berkeley had just incorporated as a city in 1878, bringing together in an uncomfortable union Ocean View, the working class neighborhood on the waterfront, and the village that had cropped up just south of campus. 

A bond measure to construct a new building for Berkeley High failed twice — in 1896 and in 1898. Ocean View residents, who were primarily mill and lumber yard workers and farmers, opposed the construction of a high school that would be built using their tax dollars but which their children would be unlikely to attend, according to Wollenberg’s account.

Ocean View School had already been open for 20 years. It ended in the 8th grade, when most students left school. To meet the demand of the new Berkeley families for a secondary education, private academies like Anna Head of School opened. But parents wanted a public high school for their children.

In 1900, more students from Berkeley High enrolled at the University of California than from any other prep school in the state.

The bond eventually passed in 1900 and, a year later, Berkeley High welcomed students on campus in the present location.

From the beginning, Berkeley High was designed to prepare young people to attend the University of California. The curriculum had two tracks: one for students who intended to enroll at the State University, and another for those who didn’t.

In an issue of the school newspaper from 1895, students bid one another farewell, but not for long. “Happily, our leaving the high school does not separate us, for most of us will meet again in the University,” the note reads. Students from other parts of the state were drawn to Berkeley to attend the preparatory school.

In 1900, more students from Berkeley High enrolled at the University of California than from any other prep school in the state. (Around that time, BHS was California’s fifth-largest high school.)

Girls from Berkeley High in particular matriculated to the university in large numbers. In 1904, 43 girls in a graduating class of over 100 seniors planned to enroll.

“And how shall I cast our future?” asked BHS president Jas. L. Fozard in 1900. “Oh, I wish that to me were granted the power to give you all happiness, honor and wealth! But I cannot see beyond the wave, or above the mountain crest, or even beyond the tower of the University.” 

Cal has become gradually more selective since the 1880s

View of the UC Berkeley Campanile from the Memorial Stadium. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

When Berkeley High became the first high school to be accredited by the University of California in 1884, graduates were granted automatic admission, as long as they received a recommendation from the high school principal. (The same became true for all the state’s accredited high schools at the time.)

This policy, paired with Berkeley High’s close proximity to the university and a student body composed of children of Cal employees, made it one of the original California feeder schools. 

Berkeley High alumni streamed into the hallowed halls of their neighborhood university. In 1904, a note in the high school paper described the school’s graduates as “so well-represented at the University” and having gained “such prominence in college circles.” BHS, the note claims, produced many of Cal’s star players in football, baseball, track and tennis and “added greatly to the literary tone of University life.”

The admissions policy was popular, except, of course, when it wasn’t. In 1923, The Berkeley Gazette reported a kerfuffle at a local school board meeting, when parents of several Berkeley High students who failed to win the recommendation of their principal, apparently for “deficiencies” in certain classes, complained to the board president. 

This policy set a precedent for the kind of access the university would try to offer for the next 150 years: admission for all students who met their standard of academic excellence.

The students who were admitted under that policy were primarily white, though the university was ahead of its time in admitting women and students of color, compared with elite private East Coast universities, many of which waited until as late as the 1930s to admit Black students or 1960s to admit women. White women were admitted to UC Berkeley as early as 1870, two years after the university was chartered.

The inside of a female UC Berkeley student’s dorm room in 1906. Courtesy: Berkeley Public Library

Campus racial or ethnic demographic data going back to the late 19th and early 20th century couldn’t be found, but there are a few stories in circulation of individual students of color walking across the stage. The first South Asian students started at UC Berkeley in 1904. Vivian Logan Rogers, the first Black woman to graduate from Berkeley, earned her degree in 1909. 

When admitting students, the University of California relied on high school principals to determine whether students were prepared to attend the university, and later, on transcripts. In 1931, the UC began admitting students who met a set of academic requirements: 15 courses from an accredited school, including a “superior” or “recommending” grade in 12 academic courses. 

In 1960, the admissions requirements changed again, this time to make automatically eligible the top 12.5% of all high school graduates, provided that their scores on standardized tests and GPA exceed certain standards. The UC was still admitting all eligible students, but it had to raise the bar to maintain its admissions mantra: “No UC eligible student will be denied a UC education.” 

“No UC eligible student will be denied a UC education.” — a concept that long guided the university’s admissions policy

But by the 1970s, UC Berkeley became unable to accommodate all the eligible students who wanted to attend, according to a 2002 report on university admissions. A number of factors made the policy no longer feasible in Berkeley: the physical capacity of the campus, California’s growing population and the ever-larger share of students pursuing higher education. Those pressures have only intensified since.

“In one generation, Berkeley has gone from an institution that could accept all eligible applicants to one that is now as selective as all but a handful of private colleges and universities,” UC Berkeley professor Calvin Moore wrote in the report. “There is every reason to believe that these trends will not change, and that enrollment pressure on the campus will continue to grow.”

Now, the University of California guarantees admission to the top 9% of California applicants, though not at any individual campus nor in the program of the applicants’ choosing.  

As UC Berkeley transformed into one of the most selective schools in the country, Berkeley High’s relationship with the school also began to shift. 

It still educated some children of professors and it still provided students with rare exposure to a research university and its many opportunities. But slowly, Berkeley High became one of many schools across the state with growing numbers of qualified students vying for admission at the nation’s top public university.

Berkeley High students have had historically higher acceptance rates at Cal

Students arrive on the Berkeley High campus for the first day of school, Aug. 15, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

As UC Berkeley became increasingly selective in the 1990s, the admissions rate for California residents plummeted. The admit rate for Berkeley High students followed a similar path.

“Even if you have excellent grades and excellent extracurriculars, and you write a good essay, it’s still not guaranteed that you can get into a UC school,” said city auditor Jenny Wong, who was a first-generation college student at Cal in the 1990s. Her son, Max, is now a freshman at UC Berkeley. 

But long after Berkeley High stopped operating a de facto feeder school to UC Berkeley, it still maintained something of that reputation. For almost all of those years, BHS graduates fared better than students in the rest of the state in their admissions to the neighborhood school.

In 1994, 69 of the 133 BHS seniors (52%) who applied to Cal were admitted, 10 percentage points higher than in the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, the GPA of admitted students rose: Straight As became an expectation and students began taking more honors, AP and IB classes, allowing GPAs to climb even higher, though grade inflation could have played a role, too.

But in their grades, Berkeley High students lagged behind. The average student admitted to Cal from a California public school had a 4.0 GPA in 1994. It would take nearly a decade before the average grades of admitted Berkeley High students reached 4.0. For years, the average GPA of students admitted from BHS consistently ranked toward the bottom on a list of all California public schools with Cal admits.

The higher admit rate and lower GPAs for Berkeley High students doesn’t have a definitive explanation.

Just 44 Berkeley High students were admitted to Cal in 2022, an acceptance rate of 14.9%

When the data were presented to Cynthia Robey, a private college counselor who worked as an admissions reader for UC Berkeley in the 2000s, she said there are many factors that influence a students’ chance of admission. How prepared were students from Berkeley High, compared with the average applicant? How many advanced level classes did they have access to? What programs did they apply for (some majors are oversubscribed and far more selective than others)?

None of this data, broken down by high school, is available online. Counselors from Berkeley High did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Whatever the reason, the gaps between students from Berkeley High and other California high schools have, slowly and inconsistently, narrowed over the last three decades and have all but closed in recent years.

Last year, Berkeley High students applied to Cal with higher average grades than anytime in recent history and, for just the second time in 28 years, admitted students had higher GPAs than the average admitted student from a California public school — 4.32 at BHS, compared with 4.24 statewide.

But their odds of getting in dropped to their second lowest in 30 years. Just 44 students got in, an acceptance rate of 14.9%, just a hair above the admit rate for California residents. 

More Black Berkeley High students applied to Cal in the last two years

A congratulatory yard sign celebrating Berkeley High’s class of 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Despite its best efforts, Berkeley High is, like so many high schools, divided into the haves and have nots, a division that is felt acutely in who winds up in advanced classes and that plays out in the admissions cycle every spring.

Who is eligible to attend a UC school is affected by a student’s background. Last year, 85% of BHS graduating seniors met the course requirements to apply to UC and California State schools, but only 65% of low-income students and 55% of students learning English did. 

It can feel like there are two Berkeley Highs, said Gabriel Fantacone, who graduated from Berkeley High in 2020 and is now a sophomore at Yale University. 

“It was really obvious the vast access to resources that [some students] had,” Fantacone said of the college application process. He recalled students who took internships at tech companies as 10th graders and whose families dished out thousands on private tutoring to build a college resume. 

Many BHS students do benefit from the university’s proximity, going on field trips to Cal from a young age. Cal students give back to the local community, including tutoring at Berkeley High, leading an empowerment and community building group for Black middle school girls and mentoring students on the robotics team. Still, Fantacone said, some students seem to have more access than others to the resources the college has to offer. 

Berkeley High offers some personalized college admissions prep through its College & Career Center. Every day at lunch and most days after school, trained essay readers volunteer to work with students on their college essays. 

Programs like Bridge offer wraparound academic support and in their senior year, help students get their applications across the finish line, paying for their application fees through a city of Berkeley grant. 

There have been some successes: Over the last two years, a growing number of Black and Latino students from BHS applied to UC Berkeley. Last year, 39 Black seniors applied to the state’s flagship university, up from 22 in 2020.

Cal’s admissions department has used new strategies to achieve diversity since affirmative action was outlawed in 1996

South Hall, as seen in March 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Two years after affirmative action was banned in California public universities in 1996, UC Berkeley implemented a policy that took into account social obstacles and personal challenges, resulting in a more holistic vision of college admissions.

The comprehensive review of a student’s application allowed admissions readers to take into account “the context in which each student has demonstrated academic accomplishment.” The latest version of that policy, announced in 2019, prioritized recruiting students at schools without prior relationships to Cal in an effort to increase campus diversity.

“We have flipped the entire model of what a feeder school is on its head,” Olufemi Ogundele, UC Berkeley’s director of undergraduate admissions, told Berkeley News in 2020. “We said, ‘Let’s not just go to the school that sends us more than 100 applications each year. Let’s spend our dollars to go to places where students don’t know who we are.’”

Between 2019 and 2020, the number of public California high schools that students had been admitted from rose by 115, from 462 schools to 557.

It’s hard to say how the admissions policy at UC Berkeley has affected applicants from Berkeley High specifically. Admissions readers are trained to take a student’s local high school context into account, as well as the student’s personal life experiences, but there are no policies pertaining to individual schools.

“We have flipped the entire model of what a feeder school is on its head.” — Olufemi Ogundele, UC Berkeley’s director of undergraduate admissions

Gabriella Raymond, a BHS graduate whose son, Ivan, is now a 9th grader at her alma mater, said she thinks the university’s admissions policy is fair. “You shouldn’t have to be in a relatively wealthy large metropolitan city with a high school with a massive number of course options and AP programs in order to be accepted to UC Berkeley,” she said.

The admissions department attributed its most diverse class in 30 years in part to the new policy around social obstacles and personal challenges. In 2020, 336 more Latino students and 51 more Black students enrolled at UC Berkeley than the previous year.

Meanwhile, at Berkeley High, the numbers of Black and Latino students admitted to Cal has remained in the single digits since affirmative action ended at the UC. Last year, four Black students (10% of Black applicants), four Latino students (8%), 17 white students (13%) and 17 Asian students (21%) were admitted to Cal. 

“I understand why they would want kids from schools that don’t necessarily have a lot of applicants,” said Jessie Luxford, the director of Berkeley High’s Bridge program, which provides academic support for first-generation students to apply to college. “I think they also need to look at the schools where there may be applicants but they’re not getting a diverse pool.”

Luxford says that of the approximately 25 students in the Bridge cohort, two or three are admitted to Cal each year.

As UC schools grow more selective, the state aims to limit out-of-state students

Students on the lawn of the Memorial Glade, with McCone Hall in the background, as seen in March 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As the pool of qualified applicants grows, more and more students who are eligible to attend UC Berkeley are denied admission, and Berkeley High students are no exception. 

Reddit boards are full of students receiving no’s from their dream school: “It’s so funny how one denial from one school messes u up so bad,” one high school senior posted last year. This year’s admissions decisions, which are being released from Cal, promise more rejections.

“I thought that I had always done very well in school,” said Will Kudsk, a 2016 BHS alum whose family moved to Berkeley from Dixon, a small town east of Vacaville, so he would be more prepared for college. After his applications to almost all the UC schools were rejected, his identity as a successful student took a hit. “Seeing all the rejection letters kind of made me realize that, I guess, ‘not well enough.’”

Kudsk, a first-generation college student, finished high school with a 3.9 GPA and a full extra-curricular resume that included robotics club and violin. But he, like most of his friends, didn’t make the cut for Cal. The year he applied, more than 250 BHS students applied to Cal and 53 were admitted with an average GPA of 4.2.

“Public land grant universities are paid for by tax dollars and they should be made fully accessible.” — Mike Chang, Berkeley school board director

In time, Kudsk saw a silver lining in the rejection from Cal. He heard from a teacher that, as UC Berkeley had gotten more selective, it had also gotten more cutthroat. He loved attending UC Santa Cruz, which he considered more laid back and collaborative. After graduating in 2020, has been able to pursue a career in the technology sector he always imagined — he’s now a software engineer at Workday.

In the last 20 years, as the state slashed the share of money it provides to state universities, Cal has increasingly relied on tuition fees from out-of-state students. In 1999, 82% of students were California residents. In 2022, that number had dropped to 65%. 

In the past, UC resisted attempts by the legislature to cap the number of out-of-state students, arguing that tuition from out-of-state students is an important source of funding. Now, new funds from Gov. Gavin Newsom are aimed at limiting the share of students coming from outside of California, especially at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego, and opening more spots for California residents.

Berkeley school board director Mike Chang, who earned his Ph.D. in ethnic studies from Cal, said he thinks the shrinking state funds have impacted student stress levels and moved the university away from its original mission. 

“Public land grant schools have a very different mission than, say, Harvard or Stanford, and we’ve lost track of that,” said Chang, who said the admissions process at Cal has grown closer to that of elite private universities. “Those public land grant universities are paid for by tax dollars and they should be made fully accessible.”

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...