In his convocation address on Aug. 23, San Diego State University President Stephen Weber estimated that if the 22,000 eligible applicants rejected by SDSU this year stood single file, the line to enter the campus would stretch 8.4 miles to Balboa Park.
Thanks to an admissions-policy change enacted last week, that line's only expected to grow longer. According to a memo issued by Weber on Sept. 21, the school is getting rid of the long-standing guarantee that local students who meet the minimum California State University requirements would be admitted to SDSU.
Under the new policy, put in place less than two weeks before the school starts accepting applications for fall 2010, all majors and pre-majors will be deemed “impacted,” or overcrowded, meaning that local students will be put into the same applicant pool as their out-of-town counterparts who boast eligibility indexes—the calculation used to rank applicants—20 percent higher than what most locals score.
The policy change, Weber says in the memo, is being made “to manage the unprecedented challenges California's budget cuts have created.”
Even though Weber's memo says locals will be given “extra eligibility points,” some educators fear that the new admissions strategy could block access to higher education for residents of San Diego's ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods.
“It might be bureaucratically convenient and expedient, but in the short and long run, it will have very serious implications for students in terms of access, flexibility and opportunities,” said Isidro Ortiz, a Chicana and Chicano Studies professor at SDSU for 23 years.
Though SDSU was already considered an impacted campus, meaning it gets more applicants than it can accommodate, and has several impacted majors, it operated as a “standing-room only” venue of sorts. Admission granted students the right to elbow their way through the crowd and attempt to get a diploma in due time. With all majors impacted, admission is likened to “reserved seating”—tickets are harder to come by and students can't loiter in the lobby undeclared.
Under the new policy, students will apply to the major of their choice instead of the university at large. Their departments, along with the curve set by their peers, will determine admission criteria, regardless of geographic origin, said SDSU spokesperson Gina Jacobs.
Geographic origin, however, strongly correlates with lower SAT scores and high-school grade point averages. According to SDSU data for this year's freshman class, 80 percent of students from San Diego and Imperial counties ranked below the class average. Locals averaged a 1,013 on their SATs, a 3.41 high-school GPA and an overall eligibility index of 3,740. Those outside the area scored, on average, 1,179 on their SATs, had a 3.81 GPA and a 4,228 eligibility index.
And even though San Diego County outperformed California as a whole on the SAT, its most diverse school districts fell below the state average. According to the California Department of Education, Sweetwater Union High School District students averaged 943 on their SATs and San Diego Unified School District students averaged 1,001, while state and county norms were 1,007 and 1,033, respectively.
This trend is further underscored by high-school exit exam data: Countywide, nearly 30 percent of Latino, African-American and economically disadvantaged students didn't pass the high-school exit exam, according to the Department of Education. Only about 8 percent of white and non-disadvantaged students failed the exam.
Critics of SDSU's new policy said the disparity in grades and test scores is attributable to factors like ethnicity and economic status and shouldn't be taken as a measure of a student's potential.
Students with low test scores “have shown that needing remediation is not a terminal illness,” Ortiz said. “They have excelled academically, become leaders on and off campus, and then gone on to become successful professionals.”
“It makes a lot of sense for SDSU to protect spots for locals,” said John DeVore, the principal of Olympian High School in Chula Vista. “It doesn't necessarily mean they will be taking inferior students. They can work with these students.”
And SDSU has worked with them. U.S. News and World Report ranked SDSU No. 21 in the nation for racial diversity and one of the top for economic diversity for 2010.
Sandra Cook, SDSU assistant vice president of academic affairs, said maintaining access was a concern as administrators worked out the details of the new admission policy. Because of this, administrators ultimately decided to award extra eligibility points to students from the region.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, currently the only other CSU campus where all majors are impacted, gives similar allowances outside of academic indicators, said James Maraviglia, Cal Poly's assistant vice president of admissions, recruitment and financial aid. But the school's official reports reveal a significant drop in the number ethnically diverse and local students admitted shortly after 1992, when all majors were declared impacted: The number of minority students declined from 34 percent in 1995 to a low of 24 percent in 2002. Numbers have since stayed around 26 percent. Additionally, the number of students from Cal Poly's service area dropped from 20 percent in the late '90s to less than 10 percent now. Comparatively, with SDSU's local guarantee intact this year, a third of its new students were local and more than half were from historically underrepresented ethnic groups, Jacobs said.
“You cannot provide open access if you can't fund open access,” Cal Poly's Maraviglia said.
And that's the same sentiment expressed by SDSU administrators. Declaring all majors impacted is the result of a CSU request that SDSU further cut enrollment by 10.6 percent next fall amid deep budget cuts, Jacobs said.
Weber called the rejection of qualified applicants “a deep and fundamental wound” but said SDSU could not participate in “academic fraud” by admitting more students than the school could accommodate.
SDSU has also closed spring admission for graduate students and will no longer allow students who've surpassed the minimum number of units required to graduate to continue taking classes, Jacobs said.
One school district, Sweetwater Union High School, has an agreement with SDSU through 2012 to admit students who meet requirements that are more rigorous than the local guarantee. Mayra Gutierrez, director of post-secondary initiatives for Sweetwater, said the district plans to renew the agreement this week. Weber said that a similar agreement with City Heights' Hoover High School will remain intact.
Since the announcement of the new admissions policy, letters have poured in to the CSU Chancellor's office and Board of Trustees condemning the decision. Gracia Molina de Pick, a longtime educator and member of Weber's leadership council, wrote:
“The CSU ‘local guarantee of admission' policy has not only allowed for inclusive admissions for local students, it has provided SDSU representation reflective of San Diego County. Additionally local CSU-eligible students who face economic and other challenges have been able to attend a four-year institution because they have not had to move outside the SDSU area. This policy has also benefited San Diego's economy by providing a college-level locally-vested work force.”
“I think the practice [of impaction] is overkill and does not reflect much creativity in problem solving,” Ortiz said. “It's using a ‘one size fits' all approach that is too often used in the CSU.”
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