Education equity crisis in California’s universities

Higher education in California has been considered a model for public provision on an international scale since Clark Kerr’s Master Plan of 1960 outlined three tiers: the University of California System or UC, the California State University System or CSU, and the California Community Colleges System or CCC, which together represented a social contract and universal, differentiated access for California students.

Today, the CSU serves as the engine of bachelor degree production in this tripartite system – nearly half of all bachelor degrees awarded in California are awarded by the CSU. However, an enrolment management crisis, termed “impaction” by the chancellor’s office, has exacerbated existing disparities in access, further problematising the experiences of students of colour and lower socio-economic status, among others.

While the 23 campuses of the CSU serve a critical role in higher education provision, they are also entwined in a paradox of excess demand, constrained finances and neoliberal policies.

With UC system applications surging and state support declining, individual UC campuses have been empowered to act as independent agents in admissions, retaining any tuition surplus at the campus level and therefore being incentivised to admit higher paying, non-resident students.

In turn, the CSU experiences trickle down demand: as in-state students are turned away from the UC, they apply to (particularly) the more prestigious CSU campuses, where demand also outstrips supply. Indeed, since 2008 between 20,000 and 25,000 qualified students have been denied admission to the CSU system due to lack of institutional capacity. This “impaction” now affects six full campuses including Fresno, Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego, San Jose and San Luis Obispo.

Impaction at the department, campus or system level allows the units in question to employ supplemental admissions criteria, raising the minimum standard for Grade Point Averages or GPAs, SAT scores or pre-requisite courses.

Basic nursing is now considered impacted at each of the 16 universities at which it is offered, with CSU Fresno noting that a 3.7 GPA out of a possible 4.0 in college-level prerequisite courses is recommended for competitive applicants to its programme.

In practice, this means that students turn to private providers to pursue nursing; enrol as pre-majors at CSU campuses in anticipation (though without guarantee) of accessing nursing programmes; and are diverted to community colleges in the hope of transferring into CSU-level programmes.

A more elite standard

Campus-wide impaction has served to produce higher GPAs and SAT scores among admitted freshmen at select campuses within the CSU. The average high school GPA at the system’s flagship campus, San Luis Obispo, was 4.04 for matriculating freshmen in fall 2016 (with a high of 4.14 for engineering college admits).

Further, the Campaign for College Opportunity notes that between 2000 and 2013 the average SAT combined score of incoming freshmen across the CSU system increased only two points, while fully impacted campuses saw increases ranging from 40 to 72 points.

These increases represent a clear move towards a more elite standard of academic achievement than has been reflected by past CSU incoming classes. If high-achieving students are being included at impacted campuses, who is excluded?

Ethnic and socio-economic diversity is differently displayed at CSU campuses. While CSU San Luis Obispo’s 2016 student body included 0.7% African-American, 11.1% Mexican-American and 56.4% White students, at CSU Dominguez Hills 13% of students were African-American, 44.4% Mexican-American and 8.8% White.

Further, there are enormous gaps in the enrolment of students receiving Pell Grants – for students with financial need – at the various CSU campuses: 64.5% of students at CSU Los Angeles receive Pell Grants while only 19.8% of CSU San Luis Obispo students fall into this category.

The six-year graduation rates at these institutions are similarly disparate: 35.7% of CSU Los Angeles students attain degrees in this period, while 69.7% of San Luis Obispo students do the same, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education's College Completion project.

While gaps in access and attainment for students of colour and lower socio-economic status have existed within the CSU for many years, they are heightened by impaction, as noted by the institutions themselves – Professor Laura Rendon’s case study of CSU Long Beach’s iterative reaction to admissions post-impaction is instructive.

“Impaction” as manifested in the CSU fundamentally alters the social contract that Kerr made explicit in 1960; it is a euphemism for policies negotiated by various stakeholders, privileging certain student populations over others.

In short, a dissonance between the de jure and de facto functions is displayed: while Kerr envisioned 33% of high school students in California accessing the CSU, actual admission and graduation rates vary widely by campus, programme and across ethnic/socio-economic markers, effectively creating tiers of access within the CSU itself.

Solving the crisis of impaction, then, would reflect a move towards improved educational equity. California’s policy-makers would do well to again take a leadership role promoting equitable access, 57 years after the Master Plan changed the landscape of higher education.

Lisa Unangst is a PhD student in international higher education at Boston College, USA, and a research assistant at Boston College's Center for International Higher Education.