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Too Many Qualified Students, Too Few Seats At UC, CSU

A group of women in black graduation caps and gowns stand waving and smiling.
Graduates of UC Irvine at their commencement ceremony.
(Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images North America)
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A growing number of California high school students are completing the courses required for admission to a University of California or California State University campus. But a new report puts a damper on that otherwise positive news — there's not enough room to enroll them.

"Quite simply, we have too many qualified and talented students than we have space for," Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, said on a webinar presenting the report.

The Public Policy Institute of California has long warned that California is falling short of its need for highly skilled workers. And research consistently shows that adults with bachelor's degrees stand to make significantly more money over their lifetimes than those with a lower level of educational attainment.

"At a time when California needs more highly educated workers, the state continues to ration access to our four-year universities," Dow said.

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During the pandemic, college-degree holders were also more likely to keep their jobs and be able to work from home.

The report highlights intensifying competition to land a spot at the state's most desirable campuses, and in popular and vital programs of study, like nursing.

Among the evidence cited:

  • Seven of the 23 CSU campuses are "impacted" for the Fall 2022-23 semester, meaning there are more qualified students than available seats. That allows these campuses, which include Cal State Fullerton, L.A. and Long Beach, to raise admissions requirements.
  • Popular majors at all but a few campuses are also impacted, and nursing programs are impacted at all CSU campuses, thanks, in part, to high demand, a shortage of faculty and the difficulty of finding clinical placements for students, especially during the pandemic. 
  • The percentage of impacted majors rose from 16% at Cal State Los Angeles and 47% at Cal State Long Beach in the 2012-2013 school year to 100% at both campuses this year. 
  • At six of the nine UC campuses, the average weighted GPA of students admitted in 2020 was above a 4.0. In 2001, this was true for just three campuses — Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego.
  • Though one quarter of all California high school graduates now apply for UC schools (up from 17% in 2001), the share admitted has risen only slightly, from 15% to 17%. The share of high school graduates that enroll at UC schools has remained flat, at 8%. 
  • The percentage of California graduates who apply and are admitted to CSU schools has also increased in the past 20 years, but enrollment has likewise remained nearly flat (11% in 2001 compared to 13% in 2020). 

The report also assessed the state's progress in making college more accessible to Latino and Black students, who have traditionally been underrepresented at four-year institutions. It noted:

  • This year's freshman class at CSU matches the population of Latino high school graduates, at 54%. 
  • Though the percentage of UC freshmen who identify as Latino has nearly doubled — from 15% in 1994 to 29% in 2020 — that's still far below the percentage of California high school graduates who are Latino, 53%. 
  • The percentage of Black students in CSU's freshman class has fallen from 7.2% in 2007 to 4.5% in 2020. 
  • Black and Latino students are generally underrepresented at the most selective UC campuses and overrepresented at less selective campuses — for example, UC San Diego's 2020 freshman class was 21% Latino, 3.7% Black, while UC Merced's 2020 freshman class was 67% Latino and 7.7% Black.

CSU Next To Permanently Eliminate Standardized Tests?

The suspension of standardized tests as a requirement for admission has been credited with boosting the number of applicants to UC and CSU schools during the pandemic. On Wednesday, CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro said he supported permanently nixing standardized tests as an admission criteria at CSU schools. The Board of Trustees will take up the matter early next year.

The UC Board of Regents decided in November to continue its test-free policy for the foreseeable future.

Groups like College Track, which works with low-income students who would be the first in their family to attend college, have applauded these moves.

"The test-optional policies in California over the past two years have encouraged many of our students to apply to more schools, and saw them getting accepted and enrolling in universities that they may not have previously considered," said John Lee, regional executive director for College Track in Los Angeles.

How To Increase Seats At UC, CSU?

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More students applying means greater competition for spots at California's public universities.

Some of the report's recommendations for expanding seats include:

  • Offer financial and housing incentives for students to choose less-crowded campuses. 
  • Consider opening branch campuses, like CSU San Bernardino's Palm Desert Campus. (UC Regent Chair Cecilia Estolano proposed looking at repurposing failing shopping malls as educational hubs.)
  • Continuing and expanding online learning.

Read the full report here.

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