The Big Admissions Shift

While everyone obsesses over the Ivies and Berkeley, Cal State -- the largest university system in the United States -- moves from being non-competitive to competitive on who gets in.
December 1, 2009

With the arrival of December, you can expect an onslaught of publicity about applications to the most elite private and public colleges in the country, and a new round of articles about how most people have a better chance of being struck by lightning than getting into Harvard. All true. In many ways, those stories won't reflect much change at all. It was incredibly difficult to get into those colleges last year, and the same will be true this year (and next year), even as the odds move up or down a hundredth of a percentage point.

Here's the big story in admissions this year: The nation's largest higher education system (and its most diverse) is shifting from being de facto a non-competitive admissions university to a competitive one. Getting into the California State University System's 23 campuses (which educate 450,000 students) has just become iffy for many -- especially for those attracted to certain campuses and certain majors.

The shifts at Cal State are not the result of a state philosophy about making their campuses more competitive in admissions; rather, they are driven by deep budget cuts in the state, which have led the university's leaders to try to shrink enrollment at a time of rising demand. Consider:

  • As of Monday morning, California State University campuses have 419,000 applications (including some from those who have applied to multiple campuses), up 19 percent from the same date a year ago. People attribute the increases to a rising high school population and years of increasing competitiveness for the University of California campuses, among other factors.
  • Last year, two-thirds of applicants were admitted, and while there is no final projection for this year, that ratio is expected to go down significantly. (Because California State has specific admissions requirements that most applicants meet, almost all applicants are qualified to be admitted.)
  • Last year, only 6 of the system's 23 campuses were "impacted" in admissions -- the Cal State term for having so many applications that they needed to go to competitive measures beyond the basic requirements of grades and test scores designed to show that applicants are in the top third of their high school classes. Already this year, that number has doubled to 12, and it may go up.
  • Last year, only 6 campuses needed to stop accepting applications for admission for the next fall as early as November 30. This year, 14 did so at midnight last night, and more are expected to do so in the days ahead.
  • Most of the campuses going to competitive admissions are having for the first time to formally set aside slots for athletes or those with particular talents in a way that they did informally in the past.

Adding to the concerns over these developments are two other facts: (1) California's high school guidance offices are notoriously understaffed (with ratios hitting 950 students per counselor), so this dramatic shift is taking place in a state where many counselors are hard pressed to reach out to students who could be affected. (2) California banned affirmative action in public college admissions in 1996 -- and while the impact on the University of California system has been much discussed, the impact has been modest until now at Cal State, without competitive admissions. Now Cal State officials are having to focus on legal ways to recruit a diverse class -- within competitive admissions -- without the tool of affirmative action that their counterparts in most states (and at private colleges in California) take for granted.

"Students are very concerned and so counselors are very concerned," said Loretta Whitson, director of student support services at the Monrovia Unified School District and executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. She said she's hearing from many counselors that they are trying to simultaneously figure out the new strategies for getting students into Cal State -- while advising more students to consider private or out-of-state institutions.

Counselors report that it will still be harder -- much harder -- to get into Berkeley or UCLA than to Cal State Los Angeles or San Jose State, but the big difference is that a large portion of the population that previously didn't have to worry much about getting into college now has to worry, and to come up with a Plan B (or C).

Lisa McLaughlin, founder of EDvantage Consulting, a private admissions counseling service in Orange County, said that she used to advise high schoolers wanting to go to Cal State campuses that they didn't need her services. The Cal State application, she noted, is straightforward.

Now, though, these students need a strategy. Many of the California State campuses that are adding admissions requirements have done so by geographic area -- favoring students nearby (who may live at home in many cases) over those farther away. So students need varying academic qualifications to get into different campuses. Many Cal State campuses also have announced that they are "impacted" on majors, meaning that extra admissions standards apply to some fields (here's a list of those at Cal State Long Beach).

So students need to think about the majors they want vs. the campuses they want, and they must do all of this knowing that they may be rejected. "I'm telling more families that students might not get in, and that they need to look at private colleges, too," McLaughlin said. There, the comparisons are also difficult. California State University campuses are much less expensive than private institutions, but with six-year graduation rates low at many campuses (61 percent at San Diego State, for instance), McLaughlin said the price a student envisions paying needs to be based on potential to earn a degree in four years. She said she worries that the average time to graduation may get worse at Cal State campuses due to all the budget cuts.

Many students seem disappointed by the options, she said. "It's sad for students," she said. "First their parents can only afford a Cal State or UC. Then it's so hard to get into UC that they can't. Then the new admissions at Cal State mean they can't get in outside their area. They are saying, 'I want to go away for school and now that's being taken away from me, too.' "

Geography is indeed becoming key to the new, differing admissions standards across Cal State, especially for campuses like Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and San Diego State, which have strong pulls outside their areas. San Francisco State University is another campus that is "impacted" for the first time this year.

Last year, it admitted about three-quarters of all applicants, and admitted the overwhelming majority of those meeting basic admissions requirements. This year, applications are way up -- 21,089 as of Nov. 16, up from 15,392 at the same point a year ago. So the university has set out a two-stage admissions process. For those in the six Bay Area counties, the process will be the same as last year -- those who meet admissions requirements will be admitted. That will happen first. Then however many slots are left will got to applicants from the rest of the state. That means a likely radical increase in competitiveness for those slots, which in years past have been a majority of the freshmen.

Jo Volkert, associate vice president for enrollment management at San Francisco State, said that the enrollment cuts ordered to meet state budget targets have left the university with no other choices.

While the Bay Area is quite diverse, Volkert said that until now, San Francisco State has had more success enrolling black and Latino students from outside the local area than from within it. So she worries about whether the university will still be able to do so when it will have much higher admissions standards for all students from outside the area.

Students from all over are asking admissions counselors " 'What does my G.P.A. need to be? ' " Volkert said, "and we have to tell them, 'We don't know.' "

For Cal State admissions counselors, their jobs have historically focused on outreach and recruitment, not winnowing and rejecting. Volkert said she doesn't like the shift and worries about its impact.

"There can be this perception in the public that we are no longer this open, welcoming institution, when we still are, when we still want these students," she said. While she's frustrated about the potential impact on enrolling out-of-region students, she said that the positive offsetting reality is that it is just as easy for those who are local to get in this year. "I'm trying to tell students they should still apply," she said.

James Blackburn, director of enrollment management for the system, said he was hopeful that the system would maintain its diversity. As of Nov. 18, applications from Asian American, Latino and Native American students were up 40 percent from a year ago, and African American applications were up by 35 percent. Blackburn said that these figures reflected an "apply early" message that university system officials have stressed, and increased outreach to high schools with diverse student populations. But Blackburn said that race and ethnicity could not be considered in admissions decisions, and that he didn't know what the impact would be of having many more Cal State slots filled competitively.

From a logistical standpoint, he said that the flood of applications is creating enormous pressure on admissions offices. Furloughs, also ordered due to budget cuts, mean that every admissions office in the system has taken a reduction in person working hours of about 10 percent. At the same time, all the changes -- from higher standards to varying standards by major or region -- demand more attention. "Historically, our system has had very little mystery about who is admitted and who isn't, but now the word needs to get out about the changes," he said. And for many programs and campuses, the word that needs to get out is that "only pretty outstanding students are going to be admitted."

Given that the vast majority of those about to be rejected could have succeeded at the university -- if it had the dollars and space to educate them -- the increased standards are no cause for celebration, Blackburn said. "Philosophically, most of us who work at the university are devoted to the access we've had throughout our existence," he said. "To turn away so many students who have the potential, to turn away someone who meets the requirements, it's very sad."


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