The "Squiggle" sculpture at UC Santa Cruz's Porter College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
UC Santa Cruz

Record admissions but just a slight enrollment increase: How to read UCSC’s ‘perfect storm’ of numbers

UC Santa Cruz sent offer letters to more than 43,000 first-year students this year, the largest of any of the nine UC campuses. That number is up nearly 40% from last year, the biggest increase of any UC school. But UCSC is expecting to enroll around just 4,650 first-year students between fall and winter as it juggles a complex confluence of factors that have made it harder to anticipate how many students will ultimately accept admission offers.

UC Santa Cruz extended offers to a record number of first-year students this year, but actual enrollment won’t look that different from recent years, the result of a complex confluence of factors that have made it harder for the school to anticipate how many students will ultimately enroll.

“A lot of people talk about perfect storms,” said Michelle Whittingham, UCSC’s associate vice chancellor of enrollment management since 2007. “I think it truly was this combination of factors and so there’s never one thing that drives everything.”

UC Santa Cruz sent offer letters to more than 43,000 first-year students this year, the largest of any of the nine University of California campuses. The majority of those offers went to California high school seniors. The number of offer letters rose nearly 40% from last year, the biggest increase of any UC school.

But Whittingham said UCSC is expecting to enroll around 4,650 first-year students between fall and winter. When looking at just fall, when the vast majority of those students will start, the school will see an increase of about 300 to its undergraduate student body over last year. That would mean that just over 10% of first-year students who received acceptance letters chose to enroll. Last year, more than 16% chose to enroll out of the more than 31,000 who received acceptance letters.

Whittingham pointed to a complicated set of reasons why UCSC “drastically” increased the number of offers to first-year students from California. Among them are the new targets agreed upon between the UC Office of the President and Gov. Gavin Newsom. In a multiyear agreement from 2022 through 2027, the UC agreed to enroll 8,000 California students, with 15% of the growth to occur at the San Diego, Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses and the remaining among the six campuses, including UCSC.

The state allocated funding for the equivalent of 500 additional full-time California students at UCSC this year. With graduation numbers and other factors, that translated into adding more than 700 additional first-year students.

Whittingham added that UCSC wasn’t able to admit as many transfer students as it wanted to because local community college enrollment has not bounced back from the pandemic.

“COVID had such a huge impact on community college enrollments, so we’re just not even yet seeing the applications rebound like we would like to from community college transfers,” she said. “Therefore, we had to go further into our first-year pool unlike some of the other campuses who could go a little deeper into that transfer pool.”

While UC Santa Cruz vastly increased offers overall, it did so selectively, seeking to rebalance the number of students in certain programs and divisions.

Much of the change has to do with the computer science program, a competitive major that traditionally sees a high percentage of students accept admission offers.

The program was oversubscribed last year, with 300 more students enrolling in computer science than expected — 813 compared to 526 in 2021. This year, the university cut back on the number of offers it made for its undergraduate computer science program to just 375 in order to keep the overall number of students in the program stable.

That meant dramatically increasing admission to less-competitive programs in the arts and humanities that typically have a lower number of students who accept offers because there are a lot of options for students to enroll in similar programs across the state.

Whittingham said 52% more students were offered admission to the Arts Division compared to last year, and 57% more for Humanities. By comparison, the School of Engineering, which houses the computer science program, saw only a 24% increase in admissions overall.

Other UC schools might not have had a similar issue, Whittingham said: “My guess is without knowing specifically they probably didn’t have a drastic change in a particular major like we did in one year.”

In part because of the challenges with its computer science program, Whittingham said the university took a conservative approach to offering admissions early on to avoid enrolling too many students, and then incrementally increased admissions over time.

Growing up, Madelyn Broome believed two things: She was destined to become a scientist and her Native heritage belonged...

That meant that this year, UC Santa Cruz ended up admitting more applicants who had already accepted offers elsewhere, including many who had originally been waitlisted by UCSC.

“We always want to go out with our admit offers conservatively, because if you go over you’re in big, big trouble right out of the gate,” Whittingham said. “So this year it’s almost a polar opposite because we were so conservative going out, even more so perhaps than last year, because we didn’t want to go over initially, [that] we made more rounds off the waitlist.”

She believes many of the students admitted to UCSC had multiple offers for other schools. “Especially after COVID, people are keeping their options open and so they’re probably applying to more schools and more universities than ever. I think that that’s certainly a piece of it.”

UCSC also has unique struggles that make it more challenging to determine which students are ultimately going to accept admission offers compared to other campuses — particularly housing.

Unlike some other campuses, UCSC doesn’t have a large urban area nearby, making it more challenging for students who want to live at home with their parents and commute to school — an increasingly popular option post-pandemic. About 97% of UCSC’s first-year students live on campus.


Comparing this fall to last:

Fall 2023: 9,524 total capacity (as of Aug. 10)
9,246 spaces in undergraduate housing
82 spaces in graduate student housing
196 apartments in family student housing

Fall 2022: 9,460 total capacity (as of fall third week)
9,182 spaces in undergraduate housing
82 spaces in graduate student housing
196 apartments in family student housing

“Sometimes our location is an amazing advantage,” Whittingham said, “but other times our location can be a challenge for those students who may want to stay at home to save money.”

The school wants to be able to offer housing to all first-year students who need it. With limited on-campus housing options, Whittingham said UCSC has extended offers to some students with start dates in winter and summer, rather than in the fall, to take advantage of new housing units that come open in those quarters as students graduate.

Despite adding about 300 more students to its undergraduate population this year, UCSC said it expects to guarantee housing to all first-year students.

In an email, university spokesperson Abby Butler said the campus is still working on housing assignments for the fall quarter, which starts Sept. 28, so officials don’t yet know how many students will be living on campus. However, the school expects to once again house about 97% of its incoming first-year students in on-campus housing.

Three new residences at Kresge College are opening up this fall, allowing UCSC to increase its capacity by 64 additional beds, from 9,460 to 9,524, Butler said.

To accommodate the new first-year and transfer students, Whittingham says the campus has staggering start dates between fall and winter to take advantage of spaces that open up from students who have winter graduations.

However, other campuses have been able to offer two-year and even four-year housing guarantees to prospective students, something UCSC hasn’t been able to do and which Whittingham said could factor into some students’ decisions not to accept enrollment offers.

“It’s very safe to say that lack of multiyear [housing] guarantees may play a role in it, absolutely,” she said.

In total, UCSC expects to have around 17,800 undergraduates this fall, compared to around 17,500 last fall and below the peak of 17,864 in the 2021-22 school year.

The university also extended offers to 7,222 transfer students (the majority from California) and will be enrolling around 1,180 this year.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.