Larry Gordon/EdSource
Cal State Northridge is one of 23 CSU System institutions.
This article was updated at 12:10 pm Wednesday March 21 to reflect the vote of the Cal State Board of Trustees.

The Cal State University system took steps Wednesday to provide more access to students who try to attend crowded campuses close to their homes as well as to those who can accept spots elsewhere around the state.

Following a directive from the Legislature, the Cal State trustees approved a new policy that will require campuses and majors with more qualified applicants than room to give some preference to students in their surrounding service area. Those students won’t necessarily be guaranteed admission but would have a leg up — described as “a finite admission advantage,” according to the rule — over a student from far away with similar high school grades and test scores.

Whatever details emerge, the preference is expected to help thousands of potential CSU students who have to attend college close to home because of family responsibilities, jobs or financial constraints. Getting rejected by a nearby campus or a major at that local school can have devastating consequences, they have said.

After a committee discussion on Tuesday, the board of trustees on Wednesday approved the change without comment.  It would go into effect for applicants seeking admission for fall 2019. The 23 Cal State campuses will develop their own formula on granting the preference, with general guidelines and annual oversight from the system’s headquarters.

However, complications are anticipated since the campuses themselves also define their geographic territories and some overlap; some schools claim a very wide base while others stake out limited areas. 

The trustees also approved a new “redirection” plan designed to aid qualified students who were denied access or put on wait lists at all the campuses to which they applied. Next spring, such students will be offered a list of campuses around the state where there is still room and given 21 days to select a first and second choice. Students who do not respond in that time will be asked if they want to enroll at a campus automatically chosen for them. 

Last year, about 32,000 applicants who met basic Cal State eligibility did not get accepted at any campus where they applied. Nearly three-quarters of that group had applied to only one Cal State school. Officials estimate that 3,600 would have accepted a chance to attend another campus.

That redirection will echo a long-standing University of California practice. There, eligible students shut out elsewhere around UC are offered a chance to attend UC Merced. However, only 124 students — about one percent of the students offered it — indicated that they would accept that offer last year. 

During the committee discussion on Tuesday, some trustees said they were worried that the Legislature’s insistence on some local admissions preference means that Cal States will take on more of a regional flavor, as opposed to UC’s more statewide emphasis, and that could hurt some campus’ academic reputation by enrolling students with lower grades on average than the schools would otherwise.

Nathan Evans, chief of staff in the system’s academic and student affairs division, acknowledged there could be some tension between boosting local applicants’ chances and campuses’ desires to enroll the best students from across the state. But he said the new policy tries “to find a good landing spot, a good balance.”

In addition, some trustees said Tuesday they resented that state lawmakers pushed for the new policies but did not provide any extra funds to cover the estimated $16 million it would cost to enroll the extra 3,600 affected students.

Cal State Chancellor Timothy White, who is already lobbying strongly for much more state funding than Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for the university, seemed ready to add this issue to his funding wish list. He said it is not unusual for the Legislature to mandate “helpful and good ideas” without a clear pot of resources.

Six CSU campuses — Fresno, Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego, San Jose and San Luis Obispo — are overcrowded in all their programs. At many other campuses, at least several in-demand majors reject students who are otherwise eligible for the university.

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