By Matt Krupnick

Despite a record number of admissions, University of California applicants had a tougher time getting into their campuses of choice this year. And the university system continued the practice of admitting some athletes who did not meet admission standards.

The number of applications is growing faster than the number of openings at UC's most sought-after schools.

Acceptance rates declined at nearly every campus. Slightly more than 22 percent of applicants were admitted to UC Berkeley and UCLA this year, down from 24.7 percent at UC Berkeley and 23.6 percent at UCLA last year.

About 60,000 California residents were admitted as freshmen, 10,000 more than were admitted three years ago. A little more than three-quarters of the 80,000 or so applicants were granted a spot at one of the nine undergraduate campuses.

The university managed to accept all qualified applicants despite proposed budget cuts, said Susan Wilbur, UC's undergraduate-admissions director. But that guarantee may not be sustainable unless the university receives more state money, she said.

"We're in a very challenging environment," she said, "but we did our very best to ensure the access to high-quality education that our students have.''

The UC system routinely admits between 250 and 300 student-athletes — and hundreds of nonathletes — per year who did not achieve the grades or test scores required of most students. In some cases, those students simply neglected to take a required high school course or didn't achieve the minimum 3.0 grade-point average; for others, the shortcomings were far more severe.

Some campuses use the "admission-by-exception" policy to enroll students from underperforming schools or low-income families. But other schools, most notably UCLA and UC Berkeley, use the exceptions primarily for athletes.

University leaders said they grant far fewer exceptions than UC policy allows — up to 6 percent of each class. And every student admitted by exception has something to contribute to the university, said Sue Wilbur, the system's undergraduate-admissions director.

"There is always a cost to admitting one student over another," she said. "It's not as if we're admitting students who are unidimensional."

Berkeley granted 63 exceptions in 2007, about one-half of 1 percent of all admitted freshman applicants and the lowest number in at least 13 years. Two-thirds of those students were athletes.

UCLA accepted 167 ineligible students last year, or 1.4 percent of admitted freshmen. More than half were athletes.

While in any given year, 20 percent to 25 percent of UC Berkeley's athletes do not meet basic UC admissions standards, 40 percent of UCLA's athletes are admitted by exception every year, including a peak of nearly 64 percent in 2005.

Students on the Berkeley campus said Friday they were willing to accept a handful of classmates who did not meet UC standards in high school.

"It's good to bring in a diversity of people," said freshman Eli Strauss. "A second chance is a good thing."

Academics have long debated whether top-tier universities should expend so many resources on athletics. UC educators acknowledged that giving athletes an admissions edge probably doesn't allay concerns that athletics detract from their educational mission. Overall, UC campus admissions officers use only half the exceptions available to them, partly because of those concerns.

"Campuses do not want to be put in the awkward position of being seen as admitting an ineligible student over an eligible student," said Mark Rashid, a UC Davis engineering professor who heads the admissions committee of the UC system's Academic Senate. "There's an inherent tension in this business of targeting and recruiting students based on athletic ability."

That tension translates into a quiet approach to the exception, he said. Few high school students and counselors know about the policy.

"It's actually intentional that it's so obscure," Rashid said. "It's extremely awkward to contemplate widely advertising admission by exception, so we don't."

Use of the exception policy varies from campus to campus. At some schools, particularly those without NCAA Division I athletics, the policy is used to admit students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may be diamonds in the rough. UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz, for example, do not look at athletic ability as a primary factor for admission under the exceptions policy.

The Davis and Riverside campuses, both of which compete in Division I, grant far more exceptions to nonathletes than athletes. At Davis, for instance, only 4 percent of this year's freshman athletes were admitted by exception, and NCAA figures show that athletes there graduate at a higher rate than the rest of the student body.

At Berkeley and UCLA, however, athletes' graduation rates fall short compared with their nonathlete classmates: by 13 percentage points at Berkeley and 21 percentage points at UCLA. But the athletes' graduation rates still are impressive, said Bob Jacobsen, a UC Berkeley physics professor who sits on a faculty committee that crafts admissions policies.

"If they weren't graduating, I'd be worried," he said. "But most actually achieve what they set out to do."

Much of the success can be tracked to the university's intensive scrutiny of each athlete before he or she is admitted and close attention after the student arrives, said Derek Van Rheenen, director of UC Berkeley's Athletic Study Center. Professors from several departments examine each exception before the student is approved, he said.

"We would never admit a student who we didn't firmly believe could handle UC Berkeley," he said. "It doesn't help anyone if they don't succeed."

At UC Riverside and UC Merced, admissions officers have started admitting significantly more ineligible applicants in order to reach more low-income and first-generation students. Other campuses also are considering how best to use the tool.

"I think we could actually make better use of it for students other than athletes, such as the proverbial bassoon player," said UC Berkeley education professor David Stern, who helped write the campus policy. "We work hard at getting admissions right at Berkeley."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or mkrupnick@bayareanewsgroup.com.