High school senior Cynthia Chavez really wanted to study psychology at Cal State Los Angeles next fall. But the student from Jefferson High in Los Angeles instead applied for admission as an English major.
That’s because her chances of winning a spot on campus are much greater in English than in psychology, one of 10 programs at the campus that now have far more qualified applicants than spaces available.
“The most important thing for me right now is to just get admitted to the school. I’ll worry about switching majors after that,” she said. “It’s really sad that this is the new reality for admissions. Just being willing and able to go to college is no longer enough.”
By last month’s application deadline, more than 215,000 high school seniors in California, an expected record high, filed more than 550,000 applications for fall 2016 admission to one or more of the California State University’s 23 campuses. Growing numbers are finding that they will be rejected for campuses or majors where the demand exceeds the supply.
The increasing difficulties students face in not only gaining entry to some CSU campuses but also to majors of their choice is casting a shadow on the principle goal of many of the education reforms underway in California, including the Common Core standards, which lists as a primary objective ensuring that more students leave high school prepared for college and careers. Educators and advocates alike worry a growing number of students will leave high school ready for college – only to find their path to a degree blocked by forces beyond their control.
“More Californians are prepared for college and want to go, yet our public universities cannot accommodate all of the eligible students and the state has failed to invest the resources necessary to expand college access to keep pace with demand,” asserted a recent report by the Campaign for College Opportunity, an L.A.-based advocacy organization.
On average, prospective students apply to two campuses – typically those in close proximity to where they live. That’s not only because they may save money by living with their parents, but also because they get preference over students from other parts of the state, and don’t have to have as high a GPA and SAT or ACT score as those applying from farther away.
Last year, about 33,000 freshmen applicants, or about 15 percent of all applicants, were rejected by each campus they applied to. A decade earlier, just 11,500 freshman applicants, or about 8 percent of all who applied, were denied admission.
Historically, some CSU campuses – including Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and San Diego State – and some majors such as nursing have always been harder to get into. Now the bar for admission is being raised at a growing number of campuses – along with the requirements to get into a major of a student’s choice.
Today, Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, Cal State Long Beach, San Diego State, San Jose State and San Luis Obispo are entirely at capacity across all majors they offer, while an additional eight universities have five or more majors with more applicants than they can accommodate, according to CSU figures.
In CSU parlance, these campuses and majors are now declared “impacted.”
When an entire campus is called “impacted” it means that it has reached or surpassed existing enrollment capacity in terms of its instructional resources and physical size. A major is “impacted” when the number of applicants who met the system’s minimum admissions criteria exceeds the number of available spaces in that major.
“One of our primary missions is in danger,” said Eric Forbes, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for student academic services. “We’re trying to squeeze as many students as possible through the neck of the bottle.”
“CSU has always been about access. ‘Impaction’ no longer allows that,” said Nancy Dority, assistant vice president of enrollment at Cal State Fullerton.
At Cal State Fullerton, all majors are “impacted.” At San Francisco State, 20 of 38 majors, from biology and chemistry to English and sociology, have been declared “impacted.” Sonoma State has “impacted” 11 of its 24 majors, and Cal Poly Pomona has “impacted” 13 of 21 majors.
The increased demand has forced campuses to become more selective in the admissions process. Many now require GPAs of 3.0 to 3.5 for students applying to popular programs including nursing, biology, computer science, engineering and business administration.
A decade ago, with some exceptions, virtually every eligible student could secure admission at every campus he or she applied to.
Several years of steep budget cuts, which have forced campuses to cut faculty, freeze enrollment and slash services, coupled with an unprecedented 64 percent gain since 2000 in the number of college-ready high school graduates, threatens part of the system’s core mission. The CSU now struggles to provide access to a high-quality education to all students who meet the system’s requirements for admission.
Although some new and ongoing initiatives aim to help boost the system’s overall enrollment, a solution that could again guarantee access to all campuses to qualified students remains elusive.
More students, less funding
CSU is struggling to cope with a series of budgetary and demographic pressures that is having an impact on its ability to admit qualified students.
Between 2008 and 2012, lawmakers cut a cumulative total of about $1 billion from the system, amounting to a loss of about one-third of the system’s state revenue.
During the same time period, California also faced a major increase in college-ready high school graduates, those who completed with a grade of C or higher the A-G sequence, the 15 high school courses in math, English, science and other core subjects students must take to be eligible for admission to CSU.
From 2000 to 2014, the most recent figures available, the number of CSU-eligible students in California grew from 107,926 to 176,926, or an increase of 64 percent.
Educators attribute the increase to the stronger focus of K-12 schools on preparing a wider range of students for college and careers, and the overall student population growth in California.
But through much of this period the number of students admitted to CSU hardly increased.
In fall 2006, 417,112 in-state students were enrolled in CSU campuses. By fall 2012, the system grew in-state enrollment by just 972 students, an increase of less than 1 percent.
The CSU has historically had a mandate to provide access to the top one-third of California’s graduating high school students under the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education. CSU officials said that despite the growing number of impacted campuses and majors, some universities can still accommodate nearly all eligible students who apply.
Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State East Bay, Cal State Stanislaus, Cal State Monterey Bay and Cal State Dominguez Hills have room for every qualified applicant in almost every major.
But with so many other campuses being declared “impacted,” tens of thousands of eligible students are no longer guaranteed admission to the campus of their choice, including, sometimes, the school closest to their home.
“Access is eroding,” said Nancy Dority, assistant vice president of enrollment at Cal State Fullerton. “CSU has always been about access. ‘Impaction’ no longer allows that.”
Dority added, “There are thousands of students we deny each year. These are good students who would do fine here. But we have no space for them.”
At Sacramento State, eight majors are currently “impacted,” up from three in 2009. School officials are considering designating all majors as “impacted” as the campus struggles with a growing number of students it accepts with undeclared majors, or those who gain admission into the campus and later hope to enroll in “impacted” majors as space becomes available.
Edward Lascher, professor of public policy and administration at the university, wrote a report earlier this year for university leaders that outlined how demand had grown over the past decade, and how it affected the school’s long-term goals.
He concluded that limiting the number of students in some majors could have both positive and negative outcomes.
“On the positive side, ‘impaction’ might improve (student) progress to (getting a) degree for students within impacted majors by making it easier to get classes, allowing faculty and staff to spend more time with students, etc.,” he said.
“On the negative side, students who fail to make it into ‘impacted’ majors may ‘hang out’ in related majors, hoping to eventually get into their first choice discipline while not making progress in another field… (These students) might get discouraged and leave school or reduce their unit load,” Lascher said.
Dority said that one positive effect of the more stringent admissions is that admitted students are generally better prepared to succeed.
“We now have much better (prepared) students coming in,” she said. “They’re more likely to complete their coursework on time and are less likely to drop out.”
But that also has to be weighed against the CSU mission to provide an education to students with a broad range of qualifications, not just those who are most qualified.
Student looking at different options
Grace Zhong, a sophomore at Cal State Los Angeles, had hoped to enroll in the university’s nursing program when she began applying for admission two years ago. But after talking with career counselors, she determined her odds of getting accepted would be very low. Instead, she applied as a health science major, a program that’s not “impacted” at the campus. She now plans on becoming a medical technician.
“My mom and aunts are all nurses,” Zhong said. “I wanted to follow in their footsteps. But the nursing programs are so tough to get into.”
Nearly three-quarters of high school seniors turned away from CSU enroll in community colleges, according to estimates. The rest will either attend private schools, out-of-state colleges, for-profit universities, or enter the job market.
Carlos Ramirez, a senior at Norwalk High, applied to nearby Cal State Long Beach, but he worries he won’t be accepted because he’s competing with almost 58,000 other applicants. (Eventually, about one-third will be admitted.) He also applied to Fresno State and Cal State San Bernardino, but said he likely could not afford moving away from home. So he’ll probably enroll at Long Beach City College if he doesn’t get into Cal State Long Beach.
Also, his chances of enrolling at Cal State Long Beach are much higher as a transfer student because of a partnership between the community college and the university that guarantees admission to transfer students who meet minimum admissions requirements.
Other “impacted” CSUs, including Cal State Fullerton, San Diego State and Sacramento State, have similar partnerships with community colleges in their enrollment areas aimed at boosting admission rates for local students who have demonstrated they can succeed in college.
“Cal State Long Beach remains my first-choice school,” said Ramirez, who plans to major in business administration. “So if I end up there in a couple years, then I’d still be happy with that.”
Some relief ahead?
For 2016-17, the system will increase enrollment of freshmen and transfer students by 12,600, or 3 percent, following the $269 million increase in annual state funding approved as part of this year’s state budget.
Continuing improvements to the state economy could mean additional funding in coming years to help further boost enrollment and restore services, staffing and programs cut over the past decade, officials said.
Some lawmakers have also proposed building new campuses to help with the increased demand. Stockton and Chula Vista have been floated as possible locations for new CSUs. But given the billions of dollars it would cost, and the political hurdles the plan would face, construction of new campuses, or large-scale expansions of existing ones, isn’t something CSU officials can count on in the foreseeable future.
Some initiatives already underway to increase access include: increasing the number of online courses, currently at 10 percent of all course offerings, to reduce the physical capacity; and providing more support to help more students complete degrees in four years rather than the five to six years it takes a large number of students.
Additionally, CSU is planning to have “impacted” campuses institute year-round academic schedules that would allow for more flexible scheduling for students and more efficient use of facilities that are unused for months during the summer break.
Forbes said CSU officials are also working on improving partnerships with high schools statewide to ensure students begin preparing for college more effectively. They include programs to encourage more students to enroll in Advanced Placement courses where they can earn college credits and programs to help students avoid remediation in math and English. These would reduce the number of students needing CSU remedial and general education classes, thus freeing up resources to help admit more students.
The goal for these initiatives is to increase CSU admissions. They would require additional funding to hire new faculty, build new curriculum and create additional support programs and services, Forbes said.
CSU’s Board of Trustees earlier this month approved a plan to ask the state for an additional $102 million in funding to help pay for initiatives to increase access. Additionally, trustees said tuition increases that are “modest and predictable” might also be necessary to pay for increased services.
“The real solution is to look at all these options,” Forbes said. “We can’t rely on applications someday starting to decline. That’s not going to happen.”