Public University in California (Not a UC) Rejected 13,000 4.0 Applicants

Last year, it turned away only 10,000 with a 4.0.

June 3, 2019

Each year, press reports focus on a few measures of the growing selectivity of colleges and universities in admissions. Typically the emphasis is on the shrinking single-digit admit rate at Ivies or Stanford University, or the only slightly better odds at elite public universities.

But those numbers tell only part of the picture. Other institutions -- in the California State University and City University of New York systems, for example -- are becoming much more competitive. Even without necessarily getting many more applicants every year, they are becoming much more difficult to get into, as reputations and student patterns change.

Take California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. In the last 10 years, it has seen the number of applications go up from 31,489 to 54,070, a 53 percent increase. Enrollment is up, but the spots in the first-year class are only up 24 percent during that period.

Here's one way to measure that increase in competitiveness. Last year, for the first time, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo rejected 10,000 applicants with 4.0 grade point averages in high school. That was, by far, the largest number of such applicants to be rejected by the university. In this year's admissions cycle, the number topped 13,000. (And if you are wondering if this is a reflection of the way many high schools give lots of extra points for Advanced Placement and honors courses, Cal Poly accepts adjusted points only for eight courses in high school, so the highest GPA possible is 4.25.)

You might think this gain in the number of applicants with near-perfect high school records getting turned down would be a point of pride to James L. Maraviglia, vice provost for enrollment development and chief marketing officer at the university. But he has decidedly mixed feelings.

Speaking of the high quality of those he can't admit, Maraviglia says, "You don't want to turn away anyone like that."

Maraviglia has been working at Cal Poly for 28 years, and he remembers when the university was pleased to be getting 7,000 applicants. Today, he said, a lack of capacity means that the university admits everyone it can, well aware that there are many applicants who could thrive but for whom there is no room. Even with some growth over the years, "this campus has been at capacity for 30 years" and so has never been able to admit everyone he and others would like.

He feels so strongly about the issue that he doesn't use the word "reject." He said he prefers to say of those applicants that "we deny them for lack of space."

And Maraviglia said that he views the role of an admissions leader in his situation as less about boosting application totals as helping those denied admission come up with good plans for considering other universities or community colleges. "I really think we have to reach out," he said.

Some of the crunch at Cal Poly is due to the state not keeping campuses growing at the same level as the state's population. But Maraviglia said that he also thinks the university benefits from its engineering and business focus, with the practical orientation of a polytechnic. And there is an emphasis on teaching that students won't find at every engineering university. "You don't have TAs leading classrooms," he said.

At the same time, the increased competitiveness makes it more difficult than ever to recruit African American students -- especially under California's Constitution, which as a result of a voter referendum bars public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions.

Of the 4,850 new students expected this fall, 37 are expected to be African American. That's less than 1 percent, in a state where African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the population. There are many more Latinx students than black students at San Luis Obispo -- they make up 17 percent of students. And while Asian Americans outnumber white people at campuses such as the University of California, Berkeley, that's not the case at San Luis Obispo. While white students are a minority in California high schools, they are a majority (55 percent) of undergraduates at San Luis Obispo.

Maraviglia said that, but for the state's limits, there are more strategies that would enroll a diverse student body.

"We don't want to be exclusive," he said. "Our goal is to be inclusive. Yet we are limited."

Application Trends at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Year Applications Admitted Enrolled
2009 31,489 11,737 3,908
2010 33,627 10,944 3,524
2011 33,001 12,341 4,316
2012 36,941 11,545 3,701
2013 40,402 13,953 4,871
2014 43,812 13,533 4,662
2015 46,820 14,651 4,943
2016 48,162 14,202 4,341
2017 48,588 16,817 5,253
2018 54,663 16,491 4,398
2019 54,070 15,350 4,850

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