As the state upgrades its education system, the University of Washington should provide more clarity and certainty around admissions for residents hoping to enroll as undergraduates.

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Football fans aren’t the only ones spellbound by the University of Washington this winter.

More than 10,000 Washington families are now on pins and needles, waiting to hear whether their children will be accepted to the state’s flagship university. This annual ritual starts around Dec. 1, this year’s application deadline, and lasts until decisions are released in March.

Who gets in is an excruciating mystery, since there are no longer clear-cut rules for admission.

I think it’s time for policymakers and the UW to revise this system and provide more clarity and certainty for students.

This would complement state efforts to improve K-12 schools so they adequately prepare students for college and careers and efforts to ensure state colleges are preparing Washingtonians for expected job opportunities.

With the state upgrading its school-funding system and redefining basic education, there’s an opportunity to set the standards’ high-end, by creating a clear and certain path to its top university.

All students would benefit from knowing that their premier university is open to all who push themselves and excel.

“When it’s clear cut (and) they know for sure they can get in, that helps a lot with their decision making,” said Lalani Pitts, a language-arts teacher who works with college-bound students at Mount Baker High School in Whatcom County.

Mount Baker used to regularly send students to the UW but the number has dwindled. The preferred destination is now Washington State University.

WSU appeals to students from the agricultural community. It also offers more clarity to strong students: All who take college-prep courses and entrance exams and graduate with a 3.5 grade-point average, are admitted regardless of test scores.

Pitts said that one year, strong Mount Baker students weren’t admitted to the UW and it had a ripple effect, scaring students off for several years: “They just felt like ‘my brother didn’t get in, my sister didn’t get in’ — it seemed hopeless to them.”

Until 2005, the UW automatically admitted top Washington graduates based on test scores and grades. It switched to a “holistic” system that reviews each applicant and crafts freshman classes.

This also enabled the UW to give more slots to international and out-of-state undergraduates, who pay higher tuition. Higher-revenue students were needed to offset declines in state funding, but the school went too far from its primary mission of educating Washingtonians. In-state admission fell below 60 percent.

Legislators responded with a quota in 2011, requiring at least 4,000 residents be accepted as freshmen annually. It was part of a deal that also gave the UW more latitude to raise tuition.

The UW has exceeded its quota the last few years. Still, the in-state admission rate fell from 70 percent in 2012 to 65.5 percent last year; it was 69.3 percent this fall. As the state grows, so does competition for slots fixed in 2011.

Still there are fewer Washington kids on the Seattle campus. Their share of the undergrad population fell 3.5 percent from 2011 to 2015, while international students’ share grew 52 percent, from 2,986 to 4,536.

Higher-ed funding remains a challenge. But it’s improved to the point the Legislature last year cut tuition 5 to 20 percent. UW tuition is down $1,600 this year.

Lower-income students are supported by Husky Promise grants and scholarships, so tuition cuts mainly benefit middle-class families. I wonder if they’d prefer more certainty about admission over saving 6 percent on the $26,000 yearly cost of living and studying at the UW. Why not cut tuition less and admit more residents?

Most Washington universities provide more clarity, as do universities in at least 10 states that guarantee admission to residents with various combinations of grade point, test scores and class rank.

Central and Eastern Washington universities take students with 3.4 or 3.3 GPAs, respectively. Western Washington and The Evergreen State College use holistic reviews.

Texas is a notable example. In 1997 it began giving the top 10 percent of high-school graduates automatic admission to its flagship university in Austin. It was responding to a prohibition on using race as an admission factor; the blanket approach guaranteed access to top students regardless of ethnicity.

Texas has since limited the guarantee to the top 7.5 percent because of capacity limits. That also has led to intense competition and arguments that it disadvantages students at strong schools, where it’s harder to graduate in the top tier.

The top 9 percent of California high-schoolers are guaranteed university admission, but not to a particular campus. The University of California, Berkeley, still uses holistic reviews and admitted 67.6 percent of in-state applicants last fall.

Philip Ballinger, UW associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admission, said he’s considering changing the system to better use data it’s compiling.

As part of this upgrade, the UW should develop a new formula for guaranteed admission for residents. It could maintain flexibility by reserving some slots — 15 percent? — for holistic review.

A more data-driven process should enable the school to build a dashboard, like the online calculators offered by mortgage and insurance companies. Students could enter stats into the formula and see what’s needed to make the cut.

The danger is that more data inputs can be used to build an even more mysterious black box.

What’s really needed is for the UW to provide more transparency and certainty for Washington families and educators.

Information in this article, originally published Dec. 8, 2016, was corrected Dec. 9, 2016. Of the freshman admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, last fall, 67.6 percent were in-state residents. A previous version incorrectly said the college had a 67.6 admission rate for state residents.