On a Thursday in the middle of May, from their homes across California, two dozen professionals from the business and political worlds moved to permanently overhaul the admissions process to the most prestigious university system in the country.
By unanimous vote, the University of California Board of Regents eliminated the SATs and ACTs as requirements for admission to the system’s nine undergraduate campuses.
The move, which applies to California high school students, could have “ripple effects across American higher education.”
And, potentially, within Pac-12 football.
In Berkeley and Westwood, the recruiting game has changed forever.
The pool of players available to Cal and UCLA (in all sports) just got bigger.
How much bigger is not easily defined and will assuredly vary by the campus, the year and the sport.
But make no mistake: The Bears and Bruins will have enhanced access to recruits.
“It’s one less barrier to admission,” said Scott Carrell, an economics professor at UC Davis.
Carrell has a unique perspective on the development. He serves as UCD’s Faculty Athletics Representative — the liaison between athletics and academia — and has studied the college admissions process in California.
His work includes a Nov. 2019 paper titled ‘Strengthening the Road to College: California’s College Readiness Standards and Lessons from District Leaders.’
Also, Carrell played left tackle for Air Force.
These days, he jokes about his brief stint as a reserve lineman for famed Falcons coach Fisher DeBerry, but Carrell is that rare Faculty Rep and with first-hand experience in major college football.
He understands admissions bars and talent pools.
Where those realms converge, clarity is now emerging for the Bears and Bruins.
“UCLA and Cal have tougher standards than most of their peers; that’s true,’’ Carrell said. “At many places, you just need the NCAA minimum to be admitted.
“Now that GPA will be the primary admissions factor at the UCs, it should be easier for them to assess the recruits’ admissibility.”
Exactly how much easier, however, is not easy to answer — for the University of California admissions process is considerably more nuanced that fans might imagine, and neither football program was willing to address the development with the Hotline.
No surprise there: Public discussion of admissions — especially how the process might become “easier” — is verboten in both athletic departments, guaranteed to elicit a rebuke from the administration.
But to help provide context on what the UC Regents’ momentous decision might mean for the Bears and Bruins, we have Carrell’s insight.
And we have the NCAA eligibility metrics.
And we have common sense, which tells us the elimination of the SAT/ACT scores as a requirement for admissions naturally expands the recruiting pool for the programs.
First, let’s examine the process as it existed until this spring.
The NCAA uses a sliding scale to determine what it calls “full qualifiers” — athletes who are academically eligible for their first season on campus.
The higher the grade-point average in core courses, the lower the test score needs to be.
For a recruit who posts a minimum score of 400 — basically, signing your name — the GPA required for eligibility is 3.55.
Of course, any student smart enough to carry a 3.55 GPA in core courses isn’t going to score a 400, so let’s move to the middle of the scale.
For a B- student (roughly 2.7 GPA), the NCAA requires an 830 SAT.
For a C+ student (roughly 2.5 GPA), the SAT bar is 900.
There are loads of California high school students in that low-B/high-C range … some of them football players … and some of them talented football players interested in attending Cal or UCLA.
But here’s where the NCAA and the University of California standards diverge: The minimum core-course GPA necessary for admission to the UC campuses is 3.0.
That means the Bears and Bruins — like Stanford — have a smaller pool of players from which to recruit than so many of their peers.
Exceptions are made. In Berkeley and Westwood, those exceptions are referred to as ‘special admits — the recruits who don’t carry a 3.0 in core courses but have strong enough overall transcripts to merit consideration.
And, they’re really good players.
“A low GPA is typically what triggers an admit-by-exception situation,’’ Carrell explained.
For the Bears, 80 percent of the recruits in any given class must be admitted by what’s termed “normal review” — they must have the 3.0 GPA. The other 20 percent get funneled through the special admissions process.
In other words, four prospects in a 20-man high school class can be admitted without a 3.0 GPA.
The Hotline asked UCLA for details of its process, but the Bruins are reassessing their policy and declined to provide specifics. (We’ll assume their approach tracks generally with Cal’s.)
What we do know is this: The special admits at Cal and UCLA are unlikely to be approved with NCAA-minimum standardized test scores.
The UC doesn’t have an SAT minimum because it use what’s called ‘comprehensive review,’ which takes a slew of factors into account for each applicant.
But a 600 or 700 SAT won’t cut it on either campus, for either program.
So in the wake of the UC Regents’ decision, the central question for Justin Wilcox and Chip Kelly can best be framed in this manner:
How many prospects in a given recruiting cycle carry the GPA needed for regular admittance but not the SAT/ACT score and, therefore, could not be offered a scholarship under the longstanding policy because the precious few ‘special admit’ slots were booked up.
Those recruits are the prime beneficiaries of the new UC policy.
They’re solid students, and they could help the programs win. But they don’t have the necessary SAT scores.
They’re above the NCAA standards (which remain in place) but below the UC bar.
There’s no way to quantify that number. It will undoubtedly vary by the year. Maybe it’s a handful. Maybe its dozens.
And maybe one of them blossoms into an all-conference edge rusher, or left tackle.
The specifics are elusive, but common sense prevails at the broadest level:
There is no longer a second — a higher — SAT/ACT requirement for recruits interested in playing for Cal or UCLA.
(Quick point of clarification: Because of coronavirus, the NCAA has waived the standardized test requirement for all athletes entering college in the fall of 2021. The UC did the same — not only for athletes but every student.
(The decision by the Regents to eliminate the SATs is a permanent move that builds on the immediate change implemented for the fall of 2021.)
So we don’t know how many recruits are suddenly available to the Bears and Bruins in a given year, but we have a decent idea of their background.
There is growing evidence — evidence used by the UC Regents to reach their decision — that standardized tests are biased against students on the lower end of the socio-economic scale.
They cannot get to the test sites on weekends.
They cannot afford SAT prep classes or private tutors.
Resources, in any and all forms, are scarce.
“I see this coming to a head at some point,” Carrell said.
“The NCAA should waive the SAT if the grade-point average is above a certain threshold. GPA is typically a better overall predictor of performance in college.”
Cal chancellor Carol Christ said the same while making her case to the regents on the day of the momentous vote.
“I don’t favor the requirement … for application for admission,” she said. “I’ve been convinced by the research that shows its strong correlation with socio-economic status. I’m also dismayed by the anxieties created by the testing culture, with its particularly grotesque reflection in the by the ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal …
“While the SAT is a fine predictor of first-year performance (in college), high school GPA, together with the strength of high school courses taken, is a better predictor of overall undergraduate GPA and of graduation.
“Given the socio-economic bias of the test, this makes sense. In my experience, it often takes students from less well-resourced high schools a year to overcome deficiencies in preparation.”
Finally, a note of caution for fans:
Don’t presume the Bears and Bruins will ignore the risk components in the post-SAT world; neither program wants to devote scholarships to recruits unlikely to survive academically … to marginal students who could become ineligible or drop out.
Cal has worked hard to rebuild its Academic Progress Rate and graduation rates after a humiliating dive in the first half of the 2010s.
The Bears just posted a multi-year APR score of 977, well above the threshold for postseason eligibility (930).
Meanwhile, UCLA basketball came perilously close to being ineligible for the NCAAs because of a low APR (933), and the football program is currently floating just above danger zone with a 944 multi-year score.
Neither school can afford to compromise at the core of its admissions process.
But now the Bears and Bruins possess the flexibility to pursue recruits who fall into the new sweet spot, who are dedicated students but lacked the requisite SAT score.
That change must come on the margins.
One player here, a few players there.
Doesn’t seem like much, but compound that marginal expansion over several recruiting cycles, and the two deeps might look different than they have for so many years.
“Anytime you remove a barrier to admission,” Carrell said, “it’s a recruiting advantage.’’
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