Episode 159: Going to College in California?

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This is the third episode in our series, Decision Time Again, because, of course, it is actually decision time for lots of parents and kids out there.

Although USACollegeChat is headquartered on the East Coast, we have some loyal listeners in California, and California colleges, including its public universities, are increasingly popular among students back here in the East.  So, with that in mind, we have today’s episode.  It is designed to make some of you feel better if your senior applied to a California college or two and did not get in.  It is also designed to help those of you just starting on the application process with your juniors in case you want to consider California public universities–or not.

1. The California System

Although we have described California’s elaborate system of public higher education in many previous episodes and in our books, let me do it quickly one more time now.  California’s public higher education system has three tiers:  the University of California (abbreviated as UC), the California State University (abbreviated as CSU), and the California Community Colleges.

The most prestigious tier is the UC system, which has nine campuses (plus UC San Francisco, which offers only graduate and professional programs):  UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz.  We have spoken many times about UC Berkeley, clearly one of our nation’s finest colleges, public or private, with its long history of excellence.  We have also spoken many times about UCLA, which has risen in prestige in the past 50 years, is increasingly popular nationwide, and, some say, is now as difficult to get into as UC Berkeley.  The other seven campuses are less famous outside of California, but that does not mean that they aren’t excellent schools in their own right.

The middle tier is the CSU system, which has 23 campuses, spread from Humboldt in the north to San Diego in the south.  Many of these colleges are not well known to those of us who are not from California, but that does not mean that they aren’t good schools.

The third tier is the California Community Colleges system, which comprises 114 colleges, with over 2 million students.  Understandably, these two-year institutions are attended mostly by California residents who live near the campus they are attending.

Now, a note to California:  It is especially confusing to those of us who do not live in your state to wrap our heads around the fact that, for example, there is a UC San Diego; a CSU at San Diego, known as San Diego State University; and a University of San Diego, which is a private Catholic university.  So, those of you non-Californians interested in a California university, pay attention to what you are looking at.

2. College Acceptances in California

That was a long introduction to the point of this episode, which is the runaway application numbers and crazy difficulty of getting into schools in the UC system, the top-tier system and the one that most out-of-staters are most interested in.  I came across an article recently in Inside Higher Ed, written by Scott Jaschik, with this sad headline:  “Wait-Listed, Rejected and Frustrated in California.”  Here is the opening to Mr. Jaschik’s article, which, though anecdotal, is quite revealing, even for those of us who are not Californians:

[A] counselor said that he is seeing students either wait-listed or rejected from UC Davis or UC Santa Barbara–students with “straight A’s and maybe one or two B’s” and SAT scores above 1400 or near-perfect ACT scores. He has seen even stronger students–among the top of his school’s graduating class–getting rejected from UC San Diego.

“Our San Diego decisions look like Berkeley and UCLA decisions from years past,” he said. “Students we told that ‘this was a likely school’ aren’t getting in.”

Parents–many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness–are particularly shocked. “We are constantly working with parents who assume a B-plus student can go to Davis or Santa Barbara, and they can’t,” said the counselor.

UCLA and Berkeley have for years been long shots for all applicants. They reject many students with perfect SAT scores and grade point averages. So while many applicants are crushed by rejections at those two campuses, their counselors aren’t surprised. The difference this year, counselors say, is that other UC campuses and some California State campuses have gone up significantly in competitiveness. . . .

A school counselor in Northern California said it is the “middle group” within the University of California where he is seeing change. He has a senior with straight A’s who was wait-listed at Santa Barbara. At Davis and San Diego, “students we assumed would be strong candidates are being wait-listed.”

He said that, next year, he will be discouraging students from using any UC as a safety.  (quoted from the article)

Well, there is a lot to unpack there.  First, there is the notion that kids in California are increasingly unable to use their own public higher education system as their fallback position, or safety schools.  We have often said, here at USACollegeChat, that the state public university campuses are great safety school choices for bright kids with good grades and good admission test scores.  And while we were always sure that no one could use UC Berkeley or UCLA as a safety, we would have thought that some of the UC campuses in that “middle group” would have been fine to use.  I guess we are going to need to rethink this strategy–at least for kids in California, which gives those kids just one more source of anxiety in the college search process.

Second, there is the very real concern of high school counselors, who have somehow led a lot of kids astray while following norms they had trusted.  They will all have to recalibrate before next season’s application process so that there will be fewer unpleasant surprises.

Third, there is the very real misconception of parents, “many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness.”  I just want to say to parents that I totally get this, because it happens to me all the time.  And, as we are fond of saying here at USACollegeChat, we do this for a living.  I am constantly amazed at admissions stories from colleges that I know were really nothing to write home about 40 years ago, colleges that were politely referred to as “party schools,” colleges that now no one can seem to get into.  I don’t want to name a bunch of those colleges here, but I can tell you that there are quite a few on my list.  This all just speaks to the growing competitiveness of college admissions.  Sometimes my college friends from Cornell and I sit around and wonder whether any of us could have gotten in to Cornell today.  So, parents and grandparents, this is not your college world any longer; it is a new college world, with higher expectations across the board.

And fourth, I would like to say to all my young friends here in New York, who have just told me recently that they wanted to go to UC Berkeley, think again–because your chances are not good, no matter how smart you are.  Berkeley just turned down hundreds–really thousands–like you.  Does that mean you shouldn’t apply?  No, because you might get lucky.  But it does mean you shouldn’t expect to get in, you should have plenty of other college choices that you like a lot, and you should be happily surprised if it all works out in your favor.

And how might California’s situation affect those of you who have kids recently wait listed at top colleges elsewhere?  Here is what Mr. Jaschik explains:

. . . [Y]ields could be hard to predict for out-of-state colleges that recruit top students in California. Many Californians have in the past turned down top out-of-state institutions for UC campuses that charge a fraction of the cost of private institutions. Such students may not have the option going ahead.  (quoted from the article)

In other words, California kids who might have turned down Cornell for Berkeley might need to pick up that acceptance to Cornell now, with Berkeley out of the running.  That means it is less likely that other kids on the wait list at top colleges will actually get in.  It might also mean that some of those colleges will find themselves overenrolled because most of the California kids they accepted might actually end up coming.

3. College Applications in California

But, let’s back up the clock a minute to look at applications to these California universities, not just acceptances.  This is a story we have mentioned before, but never with quite this much data to support it.  Here are the facts, according to Mr. Jaschik’s article:

. . . [The] numbers are available for total applications for the coming fall. And while UC campuses are edging up in total size, the application increases are much larger. Total (unduplicated) applications for undergraduate admission to the University of California were up 5.7 percent, but the largest increases were not at Berkeley, which was up only 4.6 percent. UC Riverside saw the largest percentage increase–12.2 percent.

Five UC campuses–Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara–received more than 100,000 applications each. San Diego’s total is up 9.7 percent. Davis is not far behind at 95,000 applications, up 8.6 percent. (By way of comparison, Harvard University received just under 40,000 applications last year.)

Application totals like those guarantee shrinking admit rates of the sort many applicants are experiencing this year.  (quoted from the article)

Wow.  That’s a lot of applications, and I doubt they are going to start dropping off any time soon.  What does it all mean?  Well, for families in California, it means that you need to get out of your geographic comfort zone (and perhaps your financial comfort zone as well).  This is the advice we give most often to everyone looking at colleges, and it might be one reason that counselors in California are finding that kids are getting into prestigious schools in the East–more prestigious than some of the public universities they did not get into in California–precisely because they broadened their geographic scope and found some colleges that were anxious to diversify their own freshman classes with exotic creatures from California.  Can it get any worse?  Stay tuned for what will happen next year at this time.

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