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What 'Never Have I Ever' Can Teach Us About California's Crowded State Universities

An actor playing a high school senior wears a red graduation cap and gown and stands in front of a podium smiling.
Darren Barnet as Paxton Hall-Yoshida bids Sherman Oaks High a farewell and heads west to the land of saguaro cactus.
( Courtesy of Lara Solnaki
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You might want to skip this story if you haven’t finished the newest season of Netflix's sitcom 'Never Have I Ever.'

Our favorite Sherman Oaks swimmer-turned-aspiring-scholar gets into college!

Both Cal State Long Beach and Arizona State University offer Paxton Hall-Yoshida a spot.

Rather than spend freshman year next to one of America’s busiest ports, he ultimately picks ASU — “and not just because everyone there is hot. That’s only half the reason.”

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As a graduate of ASU’s rival, the University of Arizona, I rolled my eyes, but then I smiled wistfully imagining Paxton snapping a selfie with a saguaro, inhaling the post-rain smell of creosote and discovering the simplicity of life without daylight saving time.

Paxton’s choice is representative of a larger trend. California students are increasingly attending the Tempe-based college.

‘A-S— What? What Even Are Those Letters?'

ASU was founded as the Territorial Normal School in 1886 — decades before Arizona became the 48th state in the Union. (A "normal school" is a school that prepares teachers.)

In recent years, the school has seen explosive growth and worked to change its perception from party school to forward-thinking academic institution. The college relentlessly markets itself as the “most innovative” university in the country, thanks to seven years of U.S. News & World Report#1 rankings in that category.

Meanwhile, California is pumping out more qualified students than it has space for — a 2019 study found the state’s four-year schools will be short about 144,000 seats by 2030. And it seems unlikely there will be a new UC anytime soon.

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California students are turning from the state’s overcrowded college campuses to ASU’s in-person and online offerings.

“We want to be able to create opportunities for students, regardless of their status, their circumstances, [and] how education fits as a priority in their life,” said Matt Lopez, associate vice president of academic enterprise enrollment and executive director of admission services.

This fall more than 10% of first years on campus in Arizona are from the Golden State. Californians make up 13% of the school’s overall projected enrollment of 140,759 students.

ASU also opened an additional campus in downtown Los Angeles last August.

‘If You Love Something, Let It Go To Arizona’

Several "Never Have I Ever" watchers scoffed at Paxton's post-graduation choice.

“I mean, the direct response is, so?” Lopez said when I shared the above tweet. He paraphrased the school’s charter: “We are measured not by whom we exclude, but by whom we include and how they succeed.”

ASU reports one in three students are the first in their family to attend college and almost half of freshmen are from underrepresented populations.

ASU’s six-year graduation rate is slightly higher than the national average for public universities, at 67%. For the Cal State system, it’s 63% and for UCs, 73%.

“We always can get better,” Lopez said. “We have a societal obligation to do better, right?”

Lopez hasn’t watched "Never Have I Ever" (though it’s on his list) so I re-capped Paxton’s arc — hot jock on a journey of self- and academic-discovery after an unexpected injury.

“Paxton would probably do better at ASU than a student that maybe had perfect grades and everything was easy peasy,” Lopez said. “Life is not about getting A's on everything you do. Life is about going ‘Oh, That didn't work out. How am I going to learn?’”

What questions do you have about Southern California?