How do you predict teens’ college plans? Universities have long struggled with that question before UC Irvine’s admissions fiasco

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A flood of students unexpectedly accepted admission offers. A UC campus was caught off guard. Administrators scoured the files of the admitted and took a hard line on those who had failed to meet paperwork deadlines. They withdrew more than 500 offers, causing a furor.

The year was 2015, the campus Santa Cruz.

The storm that UC Irvine recently unleashed when it took a similar approach to overenrollment was unusual but hardly unheard of on the nation’s college campuses. Experts say the two UC cases and others like them at Temple University in Philadelphia and St. Mary’s College of Maryland underscore the vagaries of enrollment prediction — a discipline that aims to meld the science of data analysis with the guesswork of anticipating teenage whims.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo also miscalculated its numbers this year, with about 700 more students saying yes to its offers than expected. One curveball was a campus decision to eliminate the option for students to make an early, binding commitment to enroll, which boosts their chances of admission but was seen as advantageous to the wealthier ones who did not need to wait for financial aid packages.

Other campuses also rely heavily on waitlists, though some use them differently. Cal State Fullerton, for instance, offers those who miss paperwork deadlines spots on the waitlist rather than completely pulling their offers. The campus needs to enforce deadlines because it’s so popular and, for years, has had to turn away thousands of eligible students, said Darren Bush, interim associate vice president of student affairs. With the help of regular data updates throughout the admissions process, officials have fine-tuned their forecasting model to be on target this year.

More information sharing between the UC and Cal State systems would be helpful, Whittingham said, since all of the schools are affected by the actions of their competitors. Santa Cruz’s lower-than-expected yield rate this year might have been affected by Cal Poly SLO’s elimination of the early decision option and subsequent enrollment surge, she said.

Since 2015, officials from UC campuses have gathered at an annual summit to share their enrollment targets and forecasting strategies. That’s helped with planning, Whittingham said. When UCLA and UC Berkeley announced they would increase admission offers last year as part of the UC system’s pledge to add 5,000 California freshmen, she knew fewer applicants would accept offers from her less-selective campus.

To improve its process, Santa Cruz also has stepped up its outreach to students, parents and high school counselors, sending out more reminders about paperwork deadlines and being less severe about them. The campus extends the July 1 deadline for transcripts to Aug. 10 for those who need more time, for instance, and has restarted mailing reminders to parents after many said they never saw the electronic information sent to students’ online portals and email accounts.

That said, no amount of planning is fail-safe.

“People spend years trying to create predictability out of unpredictability,” Whittingham said. “So much of this work is illogical.”

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