Insights & News

California Not Making Room for Increased Student Demand in its Public Universities

Under the State Master Plan for Higher Education, California promises to make room in its public universities for all California resident students who meet admission standards. That promise has been effectively broken, because the State has failed to adequately plan for its higher education needs. In good times, the doors are open. In bad times—which has been about half the time in the last two decades—access to new students is the first thing that gets cut.

The good news is that more California students are graduating from public high schools; more of those graduates have taken classes to be eligible to go to a UC or a CSU; more of them are applying to get in.

Although K-12 enrollments in California are flat, during the last decade, the number of students graduating from high school has increased by 20%, through improved retention and increased graduation rates. [1] Even more telling, the proportion of recent high school graduates who have completed the courses to be eligible to apply for admission to the university has increased by 48%. [2] These changes have happened at the same time that California implemented new and more rigorous learning standards—a truly remarkable achievement and an indicator of the hard work being done by educators and students across the state.

The bad news is that our public universities do not have the capacity to accommodate the growing number of students who are applying to college. And students from groups historically underrepresented in higher education—low-income students, Latinos, African-Americans, etc.—now the majority of recent high school graduates, are disproportionately affected when access is cut.

At the California State University and the University of California, nearly one million California residents who applied for freshman or transfer admission were turned away from 2005 to 2015.

Between 2005 and 2015, freshman applicants to CSU increased by nearly 100,000 students—or 77%; resident applicants to UC also increased, by 66,000 or around 57%. CSU cut back on freshman admissions after the recession, and is just now getting back to pre-recession enrollment levels. Nearly half a million freshman applicants to CSU were denied admission over the decade. CSU estimates that nearly 80,000 were turned away from 2005 to 2015, despite their meeting admissions requirements, due to the university’s lack of adequate funding to enroll them.

The steeper cuts in admissions occurred at the UC, where freshmen admission rates for California residents declined from 86% in 2005 to 59% in 2015. At the same time, UC increased admissions to nonresident students—who pay full tuitions. UC maintains that it had to cut back on resident admissions because the state failed to provide them with increased funding to pay for new student enrollments. Their public statements are that no eligible student has been denied admission to a UC campus, although they concede that the number of students who are denied admission to their campus of first choice has increased substantially.

Simply put, this is the very picture of a policy success in K-12 and a policy failure in higher education.

The increases in high school graduation and in college readiness are an example of a policy success, from the decades-long effort to be sure that California students graduate from high school academically ready to succeed in college. But the state didn’t do anything to ready their public higher education systems for the increased demand for a college education—a demand that the state by policy had effectively fueled.

Instead, the state continued down the path of boom/bust funding for public universities, with good budgets in good times, and severe cuts in bad times. The state left it to the institutions to figure out how to cope with the new influx of students, and made no changes in the funding systems to be sure that resident student access was protected as a first priority. The result—reduced access for California’s students—was sadly predictable.

The collision in policy between our aspirational goals for all students in K-12, and the academic and social sorting that is going on in public higher education, spells real trouble for the future of our state. California is playing a version of bait and switch with its young people. They are told to play by the rules if they want to access opportunity. When they knock on the doors of higher education, they are told “not now, sorry.”

If the state means to create a generation of cynics who believe that government can’t be trusted, it couldn’t design a better approach.


[1] Source: K12 data from Kidsdata citing California Department of Education, California Basic Educational Data System; High school graduation data from California Department of Education.

[2] Sources: California Department of Education, CALPADS cohort outcome data standardized test requirements. Eligibility for UC admissions is determined within the parameters of the State Master Plan, and are designed to reach the top 12.5% of the high school graduating class. Eligibility is measured by a combination of grades in the A-G sequence and standardized test scores. So students who have taken the A-G sequence may not be eligible to be admitted to UC, depending on their grades in those courses and their test scores.