Rejected for Being In-State

Cal State told campuses they couldn't admit graduate students in the spring if they lived in the state, but they could take non-Californians and their tuition revenue. At East Bay, one department won't go along.

August 13, 2012

In state after state, one of the ways public colleges and universities are balancing their budgets is by aiming to admit more students from out of state (who are charged much higher tuition rates). In theory, this means more revenue for the entire university, although critics have warned about weakening the ties between public universities and their own states.

In California, where public higher education has experienced cut after cut, the choices are particularly difficult. For the spring semester of 2013, the California State University has told campus leaders they may not admit any Californian students to graduate programs. Given that tuition covers only a fraction of the costs of these students' education, the university said it couldn't afford them.

But the system said its campuses could admit out-of-state students, since they didn't cost the state money. Many campuses simply adopted the rule across their institutions, but as the Bay Area News Group first reported, Cal State's East Bay campus decided to give departments the option to admit applicants from out of state (primarily international students) while rejecting Californians seeking to enter programs in January.

In most cases where public colleges or universities are admitting more out-of-state students, they are not banning in-state applicants, just raising the bar for them to get in, or expanding class sizes to admit more from out of state. The Cal State policy affects only a minority of students (grad students), but the idea that a public university would permit graduate departments to admit only from out of state has stunned and upset some faculty members.

The biology department has gone so far as to say it will admit no graduate students (and will give up money that it would have received for having more graduate students) this spring rather than deny access only to those from California.

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, the graduate coordinator of the department explained why she and her colleagues opted for this choice, and the chair of the mathematics and computer science explained why that program -- with mixed feelings -- decided to go ahead and admit grad students under the new rules.

Maria Nieto, a professor of biology and the graduate coordinator for the department, said she was stunned that it was even an option to admit only non-Californians, and that when she consulted with colleagues, many were "appalled" that this was a choice. "I just could not go along," she said.

Nieto said that in a typical spring, the department would admit about eight graduate students -- typically a mix of Californian and international students -- to its master's program. She said she values her students from all countries, but that it is "discriminatory and unfair" to reject students just because they are from California. "These are our own undergraduates, who have lived in this state, and they come to ask about graduate programs, and I have to tell them [if they want to start in the spring] that 'I'm sorry but this is not open to you,' and then I'm supposed to admit others?"

She added: "We are a state institution. Our mission should be to support the taxpayers by supporting the needs of people who live in this state. We are expected to educate our populace."

Matt Johnson, chair of mathematics and computer science, said that he supports the biology department's decision and would do the same in its position. But he said that his department -- after much consideration -- decided to go along with the plan to admit graduate students in the spring, excluding Californians. But he stressed that this was because even under normal circumstances, his department's graduate program in computer science has 90 percent of its students from outside the United States. About 50 are likely to be admitted any spring semester and since "we're probably talking about one or two students" from California, the department decided it was reasonable to proceed with admissions.

Johnson added that "this is an awful proposition for an academic department."

"I think there's a very big fairness issue, and it's a very dismal prospect when a state university is not willing to take state applicants."

Others quoted by the Bay Area News Group, even those going along with the plan, voiced similar concerns, but said that they needed the money. Bill Nance, vice president for student affairs at San Jose State University, said, "It's right at the head of campus priorities to pick up additional revenues.... We agree it's not fair to Californians."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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