Cal State Long Beach will send out rejection letters to a record 36,200 qualified applicants for the fall semester simply because the university doesn’t have enough space.
Long Beach, a campus once lauded for providing access to most eligible California students seeking admission, now rejects more qualified applicants than all but a handful of the state’s public universities.
It’s a trend that troubles Long Beach president Jane Close Conoley.
“Other schools use their low admissions rates as a point of pride. Anything rare becomes more desirable,” she said. “We do not want to go down the path of saying we’re becoming an elite university that only takes the best and brightest.”
What’s playing out at Long Beach illustrates the dichotomy between California’s goal of ensuring students leave high school ready for college and careers, and its public universities’ ability to increase access for qualified students. College preparedness is a major goal of a range of reforms being implemented in California’s K-12 schools, including the Local Control Funding Formula and the Common Core standards in English and math.
Most of the California State University system’s 22 other campuses are also rejecting a record number of qualified students, mostly because state funding has not kept pace with the growing student population combined with the rising numbers who are meeting the minimum admissions requirements.
Perhaps nowhere is the problem more evident than at Long Beach, which has become more selective as the number of applications has soared to a higher level than at any other CSU campus.
Last year, the average freshman came in with a GPA of 3.5, a record high.
“We do not want to go down the path of saying we’re becoming an elite university that only takes the best and brightest,” said Jane Close Conoley, university president.
Over the last decade, Long Beach has seen the admission rate drop from 53 percent to 33 percent for fall 2015 as the number of applicants climbed to nearly 100,000, an increase of more than 60 percent.
It is one of six universities that has been declared an “impacted” campus in the CSU system. According to CSU, that means it has “exhausted its existing enrollment capacity in terms of its instructional resources and physical capacity.” The other campuses are those in Fullerton, Fresno, San Diego, San Jose and San Luis Obispo.
An impacted campus can raise its admissions standards beyond the minimum CSU requirements, which are determined by a combination of a student’s grades on the high school A-G course sequence required for admission and his or her score on the SAT or ACT.
“It’s almost as if you need to rank in the very top of your (high school) class now if you want to be admitted,” said Theresa Song, a freshman majoring in biology. “I feel grateful that I was accepted. At the same time, so many of my friends, who are really good students, have gotten left out.”
Song said that for those who are admitted, they generally are able to find the courses and services they need because the increased selectivity has kept the campus from becoming overcrowded.
“I understand the need to close the doors to so many qualified students,” she said. “But at the same time, that shouldn’t be the role of public universities.”
Weekends and summer?
Cal State Long Beach this year received state funding for 37,400 students. The university’s enrollment has remained relatively flat, increasing by about 1,800 students since 2006, even as tens of thousands more students apply.
Taking in more would mean larger classes and stretching thin other programs and services, the president said.
But officials are now studying some initiatives that could allow the university to boost the number of students it admits, Conoley said.
They include offering more weekend and summer courses, boosting the number of online classes, and providing more support for students to improve graduation rates. Currently, 64 percent of students require up to six years to get their degrees.
But all of that would allow enrollment to increase by only 10 to 15 percent.
Growing demand at ‘The Beach’
The university remains among the most popular CSU campuses and has historically drawn more students from outside its region. Students, faculty and administrators say that’s because of the university’s location, reputation and variety of programs.
The sprawling 323-acre campus, nicknamed “The Beach,” is located in Los Angeles County on the Orange County border – the state’s two most populated counties. It also offers 87 majors, the widest range of any CSU.
Long Beach first began turning away freshmen applicants in 2002 when the number of applicants for freshman admission who met the system’s minimum admissions criteria exceeded the number of available spaces.
Back then, Van Novack, assistant vice president of institutional research and assessment, said in a university report, “We were not denying these students a four-year college degree. We were just denying them the opportunity to obtain it here.”
State studies show that at least 70 percent of applicants rejected by CSU campuses ended up attending other colleges. (Thirty percent could not be tracked.)
By 2013, the admissions crunch at Long Beach expanded to transfer students across all majors.
For this fall, Long Beach will receive about 102,000 applications for undergraduate and graduate admission, more than any other CSU campus. Only UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UC Berkeley are expected to receive more applications among all California’s public universities.
Tougher admission standards
Because of the growing demand, Long Beach continues to steadily raise academic requirements for admission. That includes requiring higher high school GPAs and SAT or ACT scores.
Freshmen applicants within the university’s local admissions area, those students graduating from the 40 public and private high schools surrounding the university, are still guaranteed admission if they meet the campus’ minimum academic requirements, unless they apply to a major such as nursing and business, which have among the highest demand, said Tom Enders, Long Beach’s associate vice president of enrollment services.
But the minimum academic requirements now are at least 10 percent higher for local applicants than they were just five years ago, meaning that thousands of area students who would have qualified for admission then are today ineligible.
Students from outside Long Beach’s local admission area face even stricter admissions requirements, now needing GPAs close to 4.0 to even be considered.
Of the approximately 32,000 students admitted for the upcoming fall semester, first priority is given to applicants from the local admissions area, then to those with the strongest academic résumés.
Most of the students being rejected are freshmen applicants from outside the local admissions area, Enders said. That means most have GPAs well above 3.5. About 8,700 transfer applicants are also being rejected.
Stephen Williams, a counselor at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, said he now advises his students to avoid altogether applying to high-demand universities, including Long Beach.
The irony, he said, is that students he’s counseled in recent years are much more prepared for college than in the past 30 years. They have significantly higher GPAs and more are taking the rigorous coursework, but are less likely to find a spot at universities such as Long Beach, he said.
“We have found the need to counteract the ‘hype’ that some schools have, the name recognition,” he said. “Students need to look at programs at other campuses for more wonderful educational experiences.”
He said counselors in the region now encourage students to consider Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Dominguez Hills, each within 25 miles of Long Beach, as more realistic alternatives. The admission rate this year at Dominguez Hills was 63 percent, while 70 percent of applicants were admitted to Los Angeles compared to 33 percent at Long Beach.
Long Beach’s total enrollment has actually declined since 2008, when it reached a peak of nearly 38,000 students.
The state’s recession, which prompted lawmakers to cut a combined $1 billion from the CSU between 2008 and 2012, forced the university to slash enrollment by nearly 12 percent at one point. Over the past five years, as funding has been restored, enrollment has steadily climbed back up to about 37,400 students.
Conoley, the university president, said her priority has always been to keep total enrollment tied to state funding. Overspending would result in larger class sizes, fewer courses and strained counseling services.
“Because we didn’t open the doors to everyone, more students get the classes they need,” she said. “They don’t get sidetracked.”
Douglas Domingo-Forasté, professor of classic literature at the university, said that many of his students arrive better prepared and are more likely to earn higher grades. But he worries this increased selectivity hurts the university’s long-standing commitment to the middle class.
“Universities like Long Beach were founded for students who didn’t have the means to go to the UC or to a private school,” he said. “Right now, there are so many people waiting to get in, it’s unreal. In some majors, we have 10 applications for every available spot.”
Sandra Rodriguez, a junior majoring in sociology, said she felt distraught when she was denied admission as a freshman. She eventually was admitted to Long Beach as a transfer student after spending two years at Cerritos College, a nearby community college.
“There is a lot more pressure to do well because I feel like I had to work extra hard to get here,” she said. “I hear the same thing from other students. There’s definitely more motivation and competition here than I expected. But maybe that’s a good thing.”
Creative solutions needed
CSU leaders have offered possible solutions they say can allow Long Beach and other universities to add more applicants without big hikes in state aid.
Long Beach has begun adding more weekend and online classes and increased support for students to complete degrees faster.
Conoley said another proposal currently on the table is to convert Long Beach into a year-round school, with a full summer semester. However, this plan likely faces more hurdles because it would require the state to significantly increase financial aid to cover the extra semester.
“Right now, a lot of students don’t take summer school because they’ve run out of financial aid,” Conoley said.
Expanding financial aid to summer classes would increase each student’s award by up to 33 percent. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2016-17 budget, released in January, increases financial aid by just 2 percent. No funds are aimed at providing aid for summer sessions.
Still, none of these proposals goes far enough to address the 36,200 qualified applicants Long Beach is turning away this year, Conoley said.
“We’re going to have to revolutionize the way we fund higher education in this state so every student who wants a higher education is able to get one,” the president said. “It’s really a sad comment on our time that we are not engaged in this process yet.”