Six students work on their laptops in a multi-purpose. A white-board with formulas written on it is in the background.
Berkeley City College students study at the Learning Resource Center on April 5, 2023. Credit: Ally Markovich

The University of California is considering a new systemwide application process guaranteeing admission for qualified transfer students. The new policy, still in early stages, aims to eliminate barriers for community college students but doesn’t promise a spot at a preferred school. 

Six UC schools currently guarantee admission to transfer students who meet course and GPA requirements through a program called TAG. Requirements differ by school and students can only choose one. Three of the most selective schools are not included in the TAG program — UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego.

The new policy could streamline the process of applying to those three in-demand universities for students at Berkeley City College and other community colleges while guaranteeing admission into the UC system as a whole. It would layer onto the existing TAG program, not replace it.

If there isn’t space at a student’s preferred school, they would be routed to UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz or UC Merced. (Students who don’t meet the requirements for the new program could still apply to transfer through the regular application, as they can now.)

It’s not clear whether the proposed changes would necessarily increase transfer enrollment to Cal and the other two selective universities that would be added to the program — that will depend on the number of spots the schools make available to transfer students. Last year 2,432 students transferred to UC Berkeley from California community colleges. Neither UC nor UC Berkeley have given an indication of whether that number would rise or drop under the new program.  

The proposal comes as the UC faces growing pressure from lawmakers to increase access to California residents and aims to enroll more transfer students to meet goals it agreed to with the state. Transfer students tend to come from more marginalized backgrounds and graduate at slightly higher rates than their peers who enroll as freshmen.

The new proposal has been touted as a “first-ever systemwide admission guarantee” for transfer students. (There is already a similar systemwide guarantee for the top 9% of high school seniors, but the new program is expected to be more inclusive.) 

Some hail it as a step toward making the UC, including its more selective schools, more accessible, but critics argue that including a school like UC Berkeley in the systemwide guarantee but not promising students a spot at the campus defeats the purpose of the guarantee.

Dr. Martín De Mucha Flores, acting dean of counseling and student equity at Berkeley City College, is optimistic about the proposal. 

He said he thinks expanding the transfer guarantee could help shift the narrative for students who would otherwise count themselves out. “Our students want to go to UC but often don’t choose to go because they have bought into the narrative that they won’t get in because of their educational experience,” De Mucha Flores said. 

Under the current system, students seeking guaranteed admission have to meet different course and GPA requirements for different schools and different majors. Students either need to decide which school they want to transfer to well in advance or end up taking extra classes. On average, California community college students end up taking 26 more units than they need to transfer

Creating a systemwide guarantee, De Mucha Flores said, could be a step closer to “demystifying” a complex process. De Mucha Flores said he believes it will lead to more BCC students applying to UCs in general, including more selective schools that students count themselves out of. 

De Mucha Flores said creating a single application across the UC system would reduce the perception that it takes “perfection” — being “hella competitive, hella networked and hella smart” — to get into a UC school. “[It’s about] not asking for students to do more than they need to do,” he said.

Akshay, a second-year student in applied math who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons, said he thinks expanding the guarantee “might have no impact at all” on admissions, but could improve morale. “It makes it seem more accessible. Some of the standards seem more tangible,” he explained.

Wan Mo, a first-year biology student at BCC, was excited about a program he thought could raise his chances for admission at UC Berkeley or UCLA, even if a spot couldn’t be guaranteed. Mo graduated from Berkeley High last year with a 4.3 G.P.A but was rejected from all the UC schools he applied to — transferring gives him a second chance.

Some high-achieving BCC students criticized the program for failing to meaningfully reserve spots at the more selective UCs. Schools like Cal are already so oversubscribed that it’s hard to imagine a transfer guarantee making them more accessible. Already, the most selective majors are excluded from existing guaranteed admission programs.

Adi, a second-year civil engineering student at BCC who is shooting to transfer to UC Berkeley, said the systemwide guarantee wasn’t much comfort to him personally. “It’s not like I care too much about the whole UC system, just the schools individually,” he said.

More transfer students are getting admitted to UC in recent years

As the share of international and out-of-state students has shot up in recent years, students from California have been left fighting for limited spots, especially at a few, highly competitive state schools. But last year, the number of out-of-state applicants slowed to universities like UC Berkeley for the first time in years, potentially leaving more spots from students from community colleges like BCC.

Over the last 15 years, the UC has been making progress toward its goal of enrolling at least one transfer student for every two freshmen.

Despite a sharp drop in community college enrollment during the pandemic and a 9% drop in transfer applications to the UC between 2021 and 2022, UC schools are close to that goal, including the more selective schools that aren’t part of the transfer guarantee. In 2009, the ratio of California freshmen to transfer students was 2.5 to 1. Last year, it dropped down to 2.1 to1.

Transfer students make up a third of all UC students, though that figure varies based on the campus. 

Though UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego do not participate in the transfer guarantee program, they still enroll relatively more transfer students compared with other UC schools through other transfer programs, though they tend to admit a smaller percentage of those who apply.

Last year, 4,861 California freshman enrolled at UC Berkeley as well as the 2,432 new in-state community college transfers.

A preliminary proposal to create the systemwide guarantee was discussed during a budget subcommittee at the state legislature last week. Gov. Gavin Newsom initially recommended that only UCLA be added to the guaranteed admission program or forfeit $20 million in additional state funds, but the UC proposed creating a systemwide guarantee instead. The UC said it was still considering “a range of options” to make transferring more accessible and the current plan “will be further refined,” a UC spokesperson said.

‘A BCC to UC Berkeley pipeline’

In 2019-20, 40% of Berkeley City College students aiming to transfer to a four-year college or university succeeded in doing so. The figure drops to a third when looking at UC and California State University schools. Roughly a third of BCC students aim to transfer to a four-year school.

That’s substantially better than most California community colleges. The same year, 22% of students enrolled in a California community college who aimed to transfer were able to. 

BCC already has one of the highest admission rates to UC Berkeley among all community colleges in the state. It had a 44% acceptance rate last year, with 179 students admitted.

“There’s kind of a BCC to UC Berkeley pipeline,” Adi said. 

BCC alumni who attend Cal, just a few blocks away, come back to campus and offer advice to current students. Students can also cross-enroll in UC Berkeley classes while studying at BCC, allowing them to create a more advanced course schedule and preparing them for the rigors of the university. 

The city college holds workshops for students applying through TAG, and UC Berkeley staff at the Center for Educational Partnerships provide guidance for BCC students on their applications.

Despite its relative success, the majority of students at BCC still aren’t part of that pipeline. Black and Latino students complete their education at lower rates compared to Asian and white students. 

De Mucha Flores hopes a simplified admissions guarantee could help motivate more students to apply to a UC school.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the new proposal would replace the existing transfer guarantee program on individual campuses. The systemwide guarantee would layer on top of the TAG program, not replace it. It also misstated the additional coursework students do to transfer. It is 26 units, not 26 courses.

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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,...