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Dilemma for the Campuses

March 13, 1988

The California State University system has a problem. Under the state's master plan for higher education, it is supposed to admit the top third of California's high-school graduates. But a recent state report showed that only 27.5% of the 1986 graduates met its entrance standards. Their grades were not good enough. What should Cal State do--violate the master plan or lower its admission standards?

Cal State chose to do the latter. Its decision illuminates the enormous problems facing public education in California. California is not teaching its public-school students well enough.

The system dropped, from slightly above a B to a simple B, the grade-point average that students need in order to gain admission without submitting any college entrance examination test scores. The system lowered the test scores required for those whose grades average between B and C.

In other ways Cal State has been toughening its entrance standards. Four years ago the university system began phasing in requirements that students bound for college take more academic courses and maintain C grades in those classes. A student applying for Cal State admission this coming fall will need 10 of those courses, compared with six last year. By 1992 an applicant will need 15--four years of English, three of mathematics, one of science, two of a foreign language, one of history, one of arts and three electives.

Perhaps the Cal State administrators should have simply announced, "We have a crisis here. We aren't going to change our standards, and therefore we aren't going to be able to do what the master plan says we should do. The elected representatives of the people of California must decide." But they have students to admit to the system, and a goal of one-third of high-school graduates to meet. An estimated 11,000 additional students will become eligible for Cal State admission under the changes; as many as 2,000 of them may actually enroll.

If a debate on the master plan and admission standards does occur, the public must consider that black and Latino students have lower eligibility rates than either Asian-American or white students. How should this fact affect any decisions? Students, we suspect, respond better when more rather than less is expected of them, so any debate must consider ways to get the public schools to improve college preparation for all students--but especially for blacks and Latinos.

There are no easy answers. But if the Legislature spent less time looking out for its own interests and more time on issues like planning for higher education and improving public schools, there would at least be answers--even if they were hard to come by.

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