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Cuts Will Detour Some Students Bound for UC, Cal State

March 07, 2004|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

For 40 years, California kept a remarkable promise to its college-bound high school graduates: The top eighth would have a place in the University of California, the top third at Cal State University.

This year, the promise comes with a catch.

Freshman classes in both university systems will be cut by 10% in the fall as part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's response to the state's fiscal crisis. The number of freshmen will be reduced by 7,000 students -- 3,800 in the Cal State system and 3,200 at UC.

Thousands of students qualified for admission will be told to wait but will be guaranteed spots at a UC or Cal State campus in two years, after studying -- free -- at community colleges.

Even with the community college fees waived, the plan is considered a great deal for the state financially.

"Community colleges are significantly less expensive for taxpayers than universities," said state budget director Donna Arduin.

California spends $4,400 a year to educate a community college student, compared with $9,000 at a UC campus or $7,000 at a Cal State.

Overall, the enrollment cuts will reduce state spending on Cal State and UC by $46 million.

But some educators also wonder whether bright students, particularly those qualified for UC, will agree to the deal.

Most will have the academic credentials to attend private or out-of-state four-year schools.

"From these students' point of view they did everything they were supposed to do," said UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale. "Yet there's no place for them at UCLA. It strikes me as a departure from what people have the right to expect."

It is unclear whether the practice will be limited to this fall or extend to future years. But many educators say they fear it will set a bad precedent, making the state's promises to students easier to break.

UC officials estimate that just 20% of those offered deferrals will accept.

Community college "is just not attractive to some kids after all the work they've done in high school to get into UC," said Daniel L. Nannini, transfer coordinator at Santa Monica Community College, which last year sent the most transfers to UC of any community college.

"There are image issues. Those kids don't want to go home for Thanksgiving dinner and tell their relatives they're at community college."

At the same time, he and others said, community colleges are already struggling to accommodate the many students they traditionally serve, let alone an influx of new ones.

H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the state Department of Finance, acknowledged that it was "tough to pinpoint what kind of response" the program would receive.

But with the state's deep budget crisis, he called the deferral plan "an innovative way to provide continued access to higher education in the midst of what is unquestionably a difficult fiscal period."

In Los Angeles, Belmont High School counselor John Orendorff said that when California's higher-education cuts were announced in early January, he got calls from college recruiters in other states seeking students who might be squeezed from UC.

"I got calls from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois. We'll lose some of our best and brightest," Orendorff said.

One of the schools calling Belmont was Grinnell College in Iowa, a 1,400-student liberal arts institution recently named the nation's "best all around" college in a Newsweek magazine ranking. Jim Sumner, Grinnell's dean of admissions, said schools like his have for several years been able to take students rejected by UC.

"I'm used to filching great students from the University of California," he said.

The UC deferrals will add to the opportunity. Even low-income students can be accommodated by schools like Grinnell, which have ample financial aid, Sumner said.

As it stands, 70% of the UC system's students enter the university directly from high school. The deferrals are much less of an issue in the Cal State system, because about two-thirds of its students now attend community colleges first.

Despite the guarantee of UC admission after two years at a community college, students may not get admission to their first-choice campuses.

At UC, each campus will figure out how to cut its freshman enrollment by 10%. Until this school year, students who were not accepted at UC campuses where they applied were offered spots somewhere in the system if they met basic eligibility standards.

Last year, about 6,000 students were not admitted to campuses but met the UC system's minimum requirements. Now most of these students will receive the deferral offer instead.

Jay Adler, an associate professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College, said students who must go to community colleges before entering UC schools can get the basic academic preparation they need. UC students who entered the system from community colleges graduated at a rate of 79%, according to UC system data; of juniors who begin in UC as freshmen, 89% go on to graduate.

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