To help those who need to stay close to home, state tells CSU to favor local students in admission

October 17, 2017

Cal State Northridge student Miguel Flores, on campus, felt he needed to attend a university near his family.

Thousands of potential CSU students have to attend college close to home because of family responsibilities, jobs or financial constraints. So getting rejected by a nearby campus or a major at that local school can have devastating consequences.

 Now, however, help appears to be on the way.

State legislators have ordered the CSU to expand admission preference to so-called place-bound students when campuses and popular majors are over-crowded. In contrast to students who are able to move around the state and choose from among CSU’s 23 campuses, many thousands of other applicants can consider attending only the one campus near their home- or maybe two within a large metro area that hosts several CSU schools.

The recent state budget gave the CSU system until May to develop boosts for qualified freshmen and transfer applicants to local campuses. Changes may begin for students who apply next fall for 2019 admission.

Paul Steenhausen, a higher education expert at the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, said lawmakers felt that some CSU campuses have drifted away from the original mission to serve “regional needs first and foremost.” So the legislature wants CSU to emphasize local enrollment even if that means students statewide no longer have an equal chance at all campuses, he said. “We find that local access is really more important than having equal access to any CSU,” he said, noting that UC is meant to serve a statewide student body without any preference for hometowns.

CSU administrators say they will be working in coming months on changing some admissions rules to meet legislators’ demands.

Inderbir Dhillon of Elk Grove is the kind of student lawmakers had in mind. 

Dhillon’s parents don’t speak English well and rely on him to translate official documents, phone calls and many daily transactions into Punjabi for them. So he felt he could not leave home for college. He applied only to one school, Sacramento State, and enrolled there this fall.

“I didn’t want to leave my family. So this was my only option,” the economics major said of attending the CSU campus which is a half hour drive from home.

The efforts on behalf of place-bound students intensified as more CSU campuses and academic programs became over-subscribed, or impacted, and now are turning away otherwise eligible students from nearby or far away. In the Los Angeles or San Francisco Bay area, place-bound students might have CSU alternatives within commuting range, but traffic jams might pose limits too.

CSU officials they say the real problem is that inadequate state funding makes it impossible to admit all eligible students. They say it would be cruel and senseless to admit them without enough courses and labs.

“The point of being admitted is having authentic access, full access to campus and classes so you can graduate in a timely manner,” said Eric Forbes, the CSU system’s assistant vice chancellor for Student Academic Support. If local access is expanded without extra money for more classes and faculty, “it becomes meaningless to be admitted,” he said. Still he said university leaders will follow the legislature’s demand to find “the right combination of rules” to give local students an admissions boost.

Assembly member Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), who serves on the Assembly subcommittee on education finance, said the budget directive aims to help students who live in “pockets of California that are kind of higher education deserts. They don’t have a lot of higher education options.” If they are eligible, there should be “a pathway for them.”

She said the legislature does not want CSU to lower admissions standards. Instead, if applicants are equally qualified, say, both with B plus averages, the local student would get a boost, said Limón, who has worked in college counseling and administration.

 As for CSU complaints about support, she noted that funding has increased but cannot meet every perceived need. Everyone wishes “we could wave a magic wand to build more class rooms and expand….but that’s just not the reality.”

There is no sure way of knowing how many of CSU’s 420,000 full- and part-time undergraduates are considered to be place-bound. But recent statistics provide some insights into the issue.

About 31,400 eligible students — who met minimum academic requirements for CSU admissions — were denied entrance at every campus or program to which they applied last year. However, nearly three-quarters of that group had applied to only one CSU campus. Some of those single-campus applicants, particularly those attempting the prestigious Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and popular San Diego State, were high academic achievers who were using the CSU as a backup and wound up attending a UC or a private college. But many others were thought to be place-bound students who could not manage other options, and analysts think many wound up at local community colleges or did not start higher education.

 (The CSU system said it does not keep records of the number of overall applicants, eligible and otherwise, who apply to just one of its 23 campuses.)

All CSU campuses are assigned a local region, sometimes defined by counties, sometimes by neighborhoods, and certain high schools and community colleges are identified as their home feeder schools. Students from those areas and schools are given a leg up if they apply to what the CSU system calls “impacted” campuses — where eligible applicants outnumber available spaces. At those schools, local eligible students are admitted first and then applicants outside the area must present higher grades and test scores.

But that advantage fades often for majors and programs that are oversubscribed and campuses overcrowded across the board; in those cases, local students may receive a slight preference but no guarantees in, say, engineering, nursing, psychology or cinema and are increasingly locked out, analysts say.

“For local students seeking admission to campuses with all programs impacted, this may unfairly limit their ability to stay close to home and obtain a bachelor’s degree at CSU,” said a recent briefing paper prepared for the Assembly subcommittee on education finance.

Six CSU campuses — Fresno, Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego, San Jose and San Luis Obispo — are crowded in all their programs. Many of the other campuses are impacted in at least several majors.

For example, at Cal State Northridge, local students are sure to be admitted if they meet minimum requirements and apply to majors that are not impacted. But they are not guaranteed a spot in the much-demand programs in accounting, biology, cinema and television, psychology and kinesiology, according to Juana Maria Valdivia, director of student outreach and recruitment. So she and her staff encourage high school seniors to earn higher than minimum GPA and test scores to enter those majors. 

Place-bound students include older students with families and jobs who are not able to pull up stakes and can’t commute long distances, she said. Plus many traditional-age CSU students are in the first generation to attend college and family ties may mean they “are not going to jump far,” she said.

Photo by Larry Gordon/EdSource

Students study at Cal State Northridge’s main library. Admission to some majors at that campus is highly competitive.

CSUN fourth-year student Miguel Flores, a television major from nearby North Hollywood, fits that bill. He applied only to the Northridge and Los Angeles campuses and, although he had excellent high school grades, did not attempt UC or private school out of fear of living costs and lack of knowledge about aid. “What stopped me was not knowing what financial situations I would deal with.”

So he drives about 25 minutes from his family home to the Northridge campus, where he said he has gotten a good education even as he works 12 hours a week assisting visitors on Universal Studios theme park rides. Flores said he hopes CSU policy changes give local students more preferences both in majors and in registering for classes. Such reforms “will help student like myself. It will motivate them a little more to understand that, even though they are struggling financially, the college will allow them to take the classes they need,” he said.

Under a related order in the state budget, the CSU system also must start to widely offer what is called “redirection” — telling eligible students who are denied admission where they originally applied about other campuses and programs with room. That might not help place-bound students in more isolated areas but could aid those within a reasonable driving or transit distance of multiple CSU campuses.

While the UC system does not offer any local preference in freshman admission, it does offer redirection to UC Merced, its newest campus, to any eligible student rejected by all campuses to which they applied. Only a small percentage takes up that offer. CSU already runs a similar program for students who earned a special transfer degree at community colleges and that take rate is small too, said Forbes, the CSU assistant vice chancellor. 

Widening redirection may not help many students but Forbes said that it still will be worthwhile. “Wherever there is a seat, we may find a student to step into that opportunity and fill that seat,” he said.

Meanwhile, at Sacramento State, about 30 percent of freshman applicants apply only to that CSU and most of those are probably local, according to Edward Mills, vice president for student affairs. “There are a large number who want to commute from home, whether it’s family or job or whatever reasons,” he said. Not many of those would be able to take advantage of a redirection offer if the campus became overcrowded in the future, he said.

Sacramento State student Dhillon said he too supports “one hundred percent” any local preference in admissions and registration. Students “are sometimes stuck in a family situation or financial one,” he said. “So they should be seen first and (CSU) should make sure they are accommodated.”


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