Twenty years ago Eagle Rock High School, located in Northeast Los Angeles and serving predominantly low-income Latino and Filipino students, could boast that it consistently had more than 20 students accepted every year to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), one of the country’s premiere universities and a gem for the state. Today, only five to seven lucky students from Eagle Rock will find their spot at UCLA.
The irony is that students I have counseled in recent years are much more prepared for college than at any other time in my 30 years of serving as a high school college counselor. They have significantly higher grade-point averages (GPA) and more are taking the rigorous coursework associated with Advanced Placement (AP) classes. In 1995 Eagle Rock High School had 55 students taking 110 AP tests; in 2014, we had had 600 students taking 1,600 AP tests! So why is it that the number of my hard-working students accepted by the state’s top public universities continues to drop? Why do students have to be “lucky” to get a coveted admissions letter from our taxpayer-funded universities?
Many of my students who would have easily been accepted by the University of California (UC) in the past are now turning their prospects to the California State Universities (CSU), at much higher rates. This has filled up the CSUs and resulted in a “logjam” at the community colleges. I am increasingly concerned when my qualified students can’t get into a UC or CSU and go to a community college instead, where data shows that fewer than half are likely to earn a degree or credential, or transfer after six years. I am most concerned about my bright and talented Latino and black students, who have some of the worst outcomes at community colleges but could have been successful had they gotten a spot at CSU or UC, where more student supports and attention are provided.
Underrepresented students, students of color and poor students are receiving the short end of the college admissions stick. Throughout the school year, teachers and counselors push students and attempt to make the pathway to college as seamless as possible. The problem with this approach, it seems, is that it works. We have more and more students meeting requirements and fewer and fewer spots in our public universities to accommodate them.
Since UCLA has become so selective, students in the local area really have no UC they can attend while living at home. These students and their counselors are constantly looking for alternatives. CSU has created honors programs to attract these high-performing students, and is accepting and enrolling them in greater numbers. This is crowding out other students, making seats scarcer for students who wouldn’t quality for UC. Seats have become scarcer in the entire CSU system where more majors every year become over-crowded, meaning students applying to CSU are now required to have higher GPAs and SAT scores than the published baseline CSU admission criteria. Why do we keep changing the admissions game on our students and raising the bar when these kids have done everything we have asked them to do? And why is this happening when more and more jobs require more than just a high school diploma?
California’s public university system is so strained that it can no longer serve the state’s growing number of students who should be college bound. I fear that without much higher levels of funding to expand the system, college opportunity will crumble. The recent report from the Campaign for College Opportunity, “Access Denied: Rising Selectivity at California’s Public Universities,” documents the disturbing trend that admission to college is getting much harder. The report also offers some constructive recommendations for state policymakers and university leaders that could help assure a brighter future for our hard-working students.
If California, the eighth largest economy in the world, hopes to compete in the future, we must do better than ranking as the 45th state for completion of bachelor’s degrees within the college-age population. It is a good thing that demand for college is rising, and good for our state that students have the ability and the desire to succeed. But the money must follow and the seats have to be there.
When students apply to our public universities in future years, they must not be met with roadblocks. Instead, their hard work and preparation should be rewarded. Our students deserve no less, and our state requires an optimally educated workforce. It is a simple equation.
Stephen Williams is a college counseling consultant and former college counselor at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles.
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