SAN LUIS OBISPO — These are good days for the California Polytechnic University here.
The one-time agricultural and technical school, mocked as "Cow Poly" by its detractors, is now the most popular and most demanding university in the 19-campus California State University system.
Nearly 8,000 students have applied for the 1,900 freshmen slots next fall, a luxury of numbers that has permitted the university to steadily raise the quality of its student body.
Cal Poly has succeeded by being different. Where most universities gain eminence by building a renowned faculty and a series of eminent graduate schools, Cal Poly has stuck by its practical nuts-and-bolts approach to education.
That philosophy is paying off, since most students today say the one thing they want from a college education is a job.
Preparation for Work
"This university has never pretended to be anything other than it is. It prepares young people to go out and go to work," said former Cal Poly President Robert E. Kennedy, who retired in 1979 after nearly four decades on the campus.
Located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the university draws half of its students from the two huge metropolitan areas. The rest come from throughout California, with many arriving straight from the farm.
The campus probably has more than its share of pickup trucks and cowboy hats, and the cows and sheep are, as one professor said, "just a whiff away."
But in recent years, agriculture no longer has been the most popular department on campus. Instead, the school has become known more for turning out architects, accountants, engineers and computer scientists.
Surrounded by Hills
For many California students, San Luis Obispo is an ideal place to go to college: a small town surrounded by green hills, a mild climate on the central coast, a clean-cut conservative student body and, best of all, good prospects for a job.
"I think the morale is really high here because it's so difficult to get in," said Heather Carlson, a senior from Orinda. "I've had friends who got into Berkeley but couldn't get in here. This is the place to be."
Under California's Master Plan for Higher Education, the Cal State universities are to admit any senior in the top third of high school graduates, and the campuses can generally take all the students who apply. Other than Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, only San Diego State and San Francisco State have had to turn away a substantial number of qualified students in recent years, according to officials at the Cal State headquarters in Long Beach.
In 1984, 8,354 applicants among the 19 campuses could not be accommodated where they applied, and 6,313 of them were at San Luis Obispo.
Cal Poly's programs in architecture, engineering and business have been "oversubscribed" since 1980. This year, however, the surge in popularity has spilled over into the liberal arts area so that even students of English and political science will find it difficult to be admitted. The political science department had 225 freshmen applicants last fall for 39 spaces, the English department had 162 applicants for 48 spaces and the journalism school had 199 applications for 24 spots.
University officials admit, however, that it is probably not the school for everyone.
"This is not the place to come and find yourself," said admissions director Dave Snyder.
A high school senior applying to Cal Poly must select a major and apply for admission to a specific program. As a freshman, he or she must begin work in that area immediately.
The late Julian McPhee, president from 1933 to 1966, dubbed his approach the "upside-down curriculum." At most colleges and universities, students take general courses in a variety of subjects during their freshmen and sophomore years, while concentrating on a major field of study in their final two years.
The Cal Poly freshmen begin with a heavy course load in their special field of study, whether it is aeronautical engineering, crop science, English, ornamental horticulture or 51 others.
"To tell you the truth, I think he (McPhee) was most worried about the kid who had to go back to the farm after a year. He wanted to make sure that kid could drive a tractor or plant the crops or had picked up some special skill that he could put to use," said Kennedy, McPhee's hand-picked successor. "He thought the 'Great Books' could wait a while."
The university is holding fast to McPhee's approach.
Kenneth Schwartz, a veteran professor of architecture, smiled when asked to compare the Cal Poly program with the University of California, Berkeley.
"They learn a little more of the theory (at Berkeley). Their students can probably do a lot of talking about architecture," Schwartz said. "But the Cal Poly graduate can sit down at the board on his first day on the job and be productive."
Corporate recruiters are particularly fond of the "learning by doing" philosophy at Cal Poly.