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The California College Guide : A primer on making choices--and making arrangements--for a college education. : Starting the Quest : Getting into many private colleges and universities is easier than before. But times are still tight at some top schools and in the California public system.


To all those students and parents anxiously approaching the college admissions process, here's the good news first:

By the luck of timing and demographics, it is easier these days to get into many private colleges and universities. The number of high school graduates, while starting to rise slightly, is still markedly lower than 10 years ago. As a result, many good schools without the world-famous names of a Stanford or a Yale are positively stumping for applicants and, reluctant as they are to admit it, relaxing admissions standards.

"There are schools where a B-plus grade average and a 1,000 SAT score wouldn't get you in three or four years ago. Now, at those same schools, students are getting in with B-minuses and 950 in SATs," said Jane McClure, an educational psychologist and college placement counselor in San Francisco.

For students too lethargic or fearful even to start choosing a college, there are more cheery tidings. Increasingly, colleges are seeking them out with a flood of mailings, telephone calls, alumni greetings and even promotional videos. A high school junior with respectable scores on one of the national standardized tests could just sit back and let, say, the College Board give his name to schools for possible recruitment.

"The targeting of these kids has gotten to be like the marketing for lean hamburgers and pump sneakers," said Howard Greene, who runs a counseling service in New York and Connecticut for prospective college students. "The amount of money being spent on materials going from colleges to potential applicants is beyond description."

OK, that's the good news. Now for the chilly splash of reality.

The applicant pool for the most prestigious and selective universities may be smaller than during the Baby Boom's adolescence, but an applicant's chances are no better than 1 in 5 at some Ivy League schools and Stanford. Meanwhile, many students who in the past might have attended a private institution are seeking the less expensive route of public education. Counter to national trends, immigration to California adds pressures on state schools here. So, it is getting harder to get into a student's campus of first choice at the University of California or to be admitted to the most popular specialized majors, such as engineering and business, at the California State University. And state budget cuts next year will make things worse at UC and Cal State.

More of the eight undergraduate UC schools--not just the traditionally tough Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses--have enrollment caps even as the number of applicants rises (by about 2% more than last year).

"So far we have been able to place all eligible students in the university, but certainly not at the campuses of their first choice," said Carla Ferri, the UC system's assistant admission director. More students are offered entrance in the winter term, as opposed to the usual autumn entrance, and more are encouraged to start at a community college, with the hopes of transferring after two years.

What's more, UC is expected to tighten admission standards soon in response to the dismal state budget. That may mean additional required courses or higher grades and test scores.

Charged with accommodating the top academic third of high school graduates, the 20 Cal State campuses have easier admissions rules than UC. Cal State is not considering higher standards yet, but its campuses are getting stricter about application deadlines as the system copes with an estimated 6% increase in applications this year.

In the Cal State system until a few years ago, only Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and sometimes the San Diego and Long Beach campuses closed their application deadlines before the spring. In what officials say is a signal of things to come, San Luis Obispo, Humboldt, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Sonoma closed their application windows by March 1 this year and certain majors at Northridge, Long Beach, Fullerton and Chico were no longer available after that point.

Greta Mack, the Cal State system's coordinator of admission services, warns current high school juniors that applications should be submitted by the end of November, the earliest deadline individual campuses are allowed to enforce. And she encouraged eligible applicants for crowded engineering and business programs to look at all the Cal State schools and apply to at least two campuses "just in case."

Even the community colleges, which are open to all state residents and have no application deadline, face budget troubles. There may not be enough classes to accommodate demand at some popular campuses.

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