Qualified students facing barriers to higher education

California’s public universities have more eligible students seeking admission than those campuses have space for, which will lead to a shortage of diverse and educated workers if left unaddressed, according to a new report from the Campaign for College Opportunity.

With about half of the state’s high school graduates completing A-G courses, more California students are applying for admission to University of California and California State University campuses than those colleges can admit.

Much of the problem stems from the state’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which has become outdated in the context of the 21st-century economy, though policy changes and continued decreases in funding also played substantial roles.

“While California’s vision for higher education in the 1960s was revolutionary for its time, our state is in dire need of a new roadmap and vision that intentionally ensures greater access to the University of California (UC), and the California State University (CSU) for eligible students, intentionally closes the racial/ethnic gaps that persist in access and success in higher education, and ensures every Californian, regardless of race/ethnicity, zip code, or income, is given a true, equitable opportunity to go to college and cross the graduation stage,” the report states.

The master plan calls for the UC system to draw its freshman class from the top one-eighth of high school graduates, and for the CSU system to draw from the top one-third. The systems set their own minimum admissions standards based on these “eligibility pools,” historically using a combination of high school course requirements, grade point averages, standardized test scores and other criteria.

Currently, eligible high school students continue to be especially impacted and face challenges when they attempt to gain access to their preferred UC or CSU campus or a specific program. In the CSU system, 16 of the 23 campuses have more freshman applicants meeting statewide eligibility requirements than their physical capacities and resources can admit — and nearly all CSU campuses have specific programs or majors that are at capacity.

And freshman admission is also highly competitive in the UC system, according to the report. The average high school GPA of students admitted has increased and is close to or above a 4.0 at nearly all nine undergraduate campuses. Additionally, UC Merced is the only UC campus that accepts students from the referral pool — those students who rank in the top 9 percent of their graduating high school class statewide and meet UC eligibility but are not admitted to their preferred campus. According to the report, nearly 12,000 UC applicants were in the referral pool in 2019. Only 553 of them opted for admission to the Merced campus and only 57 chose to enroll.

As part of his January budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom included $537 in new funding for the CSU system and $602.3 million for UC system, as well as the establishment of a statewide college attainment goal of achieving 70 percent degree and certificate attainment among working-aged Californians by 2030.

Recommendations to meet demand

Having a bachelor’s degree provides significant economic and health benefits for individuals and is a minimum requirement for careers across in-demand sectors. With decreasing access, however, California is projecting a shortfall of workers with bachelor’s degrees and ranks 34th nationally in awarding four-year degrees.

“California needs a new vision for providing access to the baccalaureate, one that acknowledges the

limits of the California Master Plan for Higher Education’s structure in the context of today’s society and economy,” the report states. “California is making promises to its students — through its focus on increasing the share of high school students who complete the A-G curriculum, as well as its focus on the Associate Degree for Transfer and on increasing the number of community college transfers to the UC and CSU. But we are failing to keep those promises because capacity at the UC and CSU is limited by an outdated vision of the need for baccalaureate education and unrealistic expectations about how much the transfer process can achieve.”

The report concludes that while state colleges and universities are working to increase efficiency, current policy structures and funding levels are inadequate to meet the demands of the 21st century and to keep promises to California students. To better match state policies to the needs of today’s students and economy, authors outline several recommendations, including:

  • Formally establishing a degree attainment goal codified in law with a statewide goal of ensuring that 60 percent of Californians earn a degree or certificate of high value.
  • Revising and expanding eligibility requirements under the California Master Plan for Higher Education such that students from the top 15 percent of high school graduates will be eligible for the UC and the top 40 percent will be eligible for the CSU.
  • Adopting a five-year plan for increasing enrollment at the UC and CSU to meet our statewide degree attainment goal while intentionally closing racial/ethnic gaps in college access and degree completion.
  • Requiring the CSU Chancellor’s Office to analyze campus and program impaction while identifying alternatives that better serve California’s students.
  • Establishing a higher education coordinating body that would set goals, provide oversight, and collect data to improve transparency and advance California toward a 60 percent attainment goal.

Read the report here.