In order to equitably adjust to the needs of student applicants during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UC system eliminated the standardized testing requirement and increased its virtual outreach to prospective students. According to UC Santa Barbara’s Office of Admissions, such changes contributed toward UCSB, and the UC system as a whole, receiving its largest pool of undergraduate applicants in history.
The UC system enforced its test-free policy for the first time during the 2021 application cycle. This resulted in a rise in the number of applicants — particularly among underrepresented minority (URM) applicants — but a decrease in the proportion of first-generation applicants, according to UCSB’s Director of Admissions Lisa Przekop.
Przekop said that at UCSB, this year’s record application cycle saw a 16% increase in freshman applications and an 8% increase in transfer applications compared to last year.
This fall, the UC system as a whole saw an 18.4% increase in the number of freshman applications and a 7.2% increase in the number of transfer applications, according to the University of California Office of the President (UCOP). Additionally, there was a 12.2% increase in the number of Chicano/Latinx freshmen applicants and a 21.8% increase in African American freshmen applicants. However, the overall proportion of underrepresented minority (URM) applicants remained flat. This means that, while the number of URM applicants increased, it did not increase any more than other demographic groups.
According to data collected by the UCOP, there was a 9.4% increase in the number of Chicano/Latinx freshmen applicants applying to UCSB, from 19,989 in 2020 to 21,867 in 2021. In addition, there was a 18.9% increase in the number of African American freshmen applicants applying to UCSB, from 3,211 in 2020 to 3,820 in 2021.
While the overall number of applicants increased this year both at UCSB and in the entire UC system, Przekop said there was a dip in the proportion of first-generation students applying to UCSB. According to Przekop, the admissions office speculates that this dip may be due to the pandemic shutting down schools, making it harder for students to access information about the college admissions process.
“It’s difficult for high school students to complete the application process when they don’t have regular access to counselors due to COVID,” Przekop said. “College representatives are not as easily accessible this year because so many college fairs were canceled due to COVID. We think this is what has caused the decrease in applications from first-generation students — less access to critical information.”
According to Dolores Inés Casillas, Director of the Chicano Studies Institute and Associate Professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCSB, first-generation students may have been more impacted by the pandemic than other demographic groups because they generally rely on high school counselors and programs for information on filling out applications and getting into college.
“First-generation students face challenges years before actually filling out a college application … There’s a reliance on counselors and college prep programs for first-generation students so that they understand the preparation required [for college],” Casillas said. “I hear of high school students taking classes at community college during the summer to knock out a college prep requirement. If you’re first generation, and many are from working-class backgrounds, summer months are for summer gigs or part-time jobs or pitching in to help family with childcare.”
As for the overall applicant pool, Przekop associated the increased number of applicants to the UC system no longer considering standardized test scores. The UC system dropped the SAT/ACT from its application for the first time this year, in part because COVID-19 mitigation measures implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 made it harder for students to take the tests in person, according to a 2020 UCOP press release.
“This is the first year that we are ‘test-free’ in the application process, meaning we are not using SAT/ACT scores in our evaluation,” Przekop said. “This is likely a partial reason for the application increase.”
While the pandemic expedited the decision to become test-free, it was not the only reason. As summarized by the 2020 final report from the UC Academic Council Standardized Testing Task Force, test scores were weighed less heavily than GPA in admissions, though they still had a negative impact on the acceptance rates of underrepresented applicants. This is because SAT/ACT scores are also predictive of socioeconomic class and, as a result, can act as a barrier against URM, first-generation and low-income applicants, according to a 2012 study from the University of Minnesota and a 2017 study from the Brookings Institution.
A more recent 2019 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research also found that URM students are 9 percent less likely than white students to retake the SAT due to economic and time constraints. The SAT with essay costs $68, and the ACT with writing costs $70. While fee waivers do exist, the study found that 43% of students living in households earning below $30,000 did not use them.
According to Casillas, the UC system becoming test-free may have encouraged more URM students to apply to UCSB by removing the SAT/ACT from consideration, and thus the cost associated with it.
Casillas also speculated that more URM students may have applied this fall to avoid the unstable working conditions intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From my own conversations with Latino high school students, many of them saw their parents faced with sudden unemployment because of the pandemic,” Casillas said. “Those recognized as ‘essential workers’ — those that picked our food, delivered our groceries and made it possible for us to quarantine at home safely — were disproportionately workers of color. This inspired many of the high school students I know to pursue a bachelor’s degree.”
Besides removing the SAT/ACT from the application, the number of students applying to UCSB may have also increased due to a rise in virtual outreach efforts. According to Chelsea Boone, assistant director of communications for the UCSB Office of Admissions, the campus expanded student outreach by hosting virtual tours, student panels and lectures. It also offered events and brochures in Spanish.
“We aimed to reach all students, but we specifically made sure that first-generation students and students from diverse backgrounds were represented,” Boone said. “We hosted student-organization takeovers and ‘ask-me-anything’ sessions, and we also featured resources and support programs on the page.”