Cal State Hopes to Stem Dropout Tide : Trustees Consider Controversial Tightening of Admission Rules

Times Education Writer

Only one in four California State University System freshmen gets a degree from that system within five years. That rate, which some university officials admit is embarrassingly low, has prompted a push for more rigorous admissions standards.

Although the university does not keep track of why students leave or where they go, officials said that some of them may transfer to a college outside the 19-campus state system. Many Cal State students are part-timers and some are still enrolled after five years.

But officials acknowledged that most of the university dropouts will not gain college degrees.


Although many colleges and universities are inclined to boast about the makeup of their freshmen class, most do not publicize the percentage of students who stay through to graduation.

“In California, we have tended to put a great deal of emphasis on access to higher education, but we have not paid much attention to what happens to the students once they get in,” said Patrick Callan, director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

The graduation figures are even worse for members of minority groups.

For example, of the black freshmen who enrolled on Cal State campuses in 1978, only 11% had earned a degree by 1983. Of Latinos entering in 1978, 13% had graduated five years later.

Typically, the universities with the highest graduation rates are those where most students live on or near the campus. The Cal Poly campus at San Luis Obispo graduates about 39% of its students within five years, the highest percentage in the system.

Commuter Schools’ Low Rate

Meanwhile, the commuter campuses in the Los Angeles area tend to have the lowest completion rates. In the most recent statistics, only one in eight freshmen at Cal State Los Angeles graduated with a degree within five years.

UCLA says it graduates 55% of its freshmen in five years and the University of California, Berkeley, graduates 61% during the same time.


By law, the Cal State campuses are to admit only students from the top third of the state’s high school graduates, while the University of California selects students from the top 12%.

“If we are taking in qualified students, why are so few of them succeeding?” Callan asked. “I don’t have a good answer to that question.”

Higher education experts say that more California students tend to go to college than in other states, but fewer graduate.

“There is a sort of California phenomenon. There is less stigma to transferring or dropping out than there is in the East,” said UCLA Prof. Alexander Astin, one of the nation’s leading researchers on higher education. “But a lot of students get lost in those transitions. The graduation rate is definitely lower here than elsewhere.”

Astin said that a nationwide study of universities in the mid-1970s found that 47% of freshmen earned a bachelor’s degree within four years.

This week, the Cal State trustees meeting in Long Beach will vote on a controversial admissions rule--first proposed last year--that they hope will stem the tide of dropouts.


If approved by the trustees, Cal State fresh

men, beginning in 1988, would be required to have completed 15 college preparatory courses in high school, a course pattern similar to what the more selective University of California requires.

In 1984, the Cal State system, for the first time, added course requirements to its admission policy. Beginning students were required to have taken four years of English and two years of mathematics. The new standards would require a third year of math, as well as courses in science, foreign language, social studies and art.

Since it was announced last November, the proposed rule has been criticized by school officials and minority-group leaders, who said it might screen out black and Latino students.

Viewed as Racist

“We had a lot of opposition at first. It was viewed as elitist and racist by some,” said John Bedell, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

In public hearings around the state, many school officials said that they would have difficulty offering enough math and sciences classes. Others said that students, particularly those in low-income and minority schools, would not enroll in all the needed courses and could be barred from the state universities.

However, Cal State officials said they hope that better preparation in high school will help more students survive in college.


“It is my fervent belief that this (new admissions standard) will reduce our attrition rate,” said Cal State System Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds.

Reynolds said that Latino and black students are less likely to have taken a strong academic program in high school and are also less likely to succeed in the universities.

‘Attrition Rate Higher’

“Most of these minority students have not had all the courses they need, and their attrition rate is higher--far higher--than for students who have” taken a college preparatory program in high school, Reynolds said.

As part of its affirmative-action program, the state university also admits many freshmen whose grades are not as high as normally required. But according to Cal State figures, fewer than one in 12 of these students graduates within five years.

Privately, many university officials say they are less sanguine than before about the wisdom of opening the doors to students who are not prepared for college work.

“In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, we were convinced that if we poured enough money into special (tutoring and remedial) programs on campus that those students could make it,” one Cal State official said. “The evidence is, that was totally unrealistic. Those kids just flunk out.”


Still, some minority leaders said they are torn by the move toward higher admissions standards.

‘They Will Be Left Out’

“In principle, I couldn’t agree more with the need to be clear about what course work students need in high school. But you can’t lose sight of the reality, which is that many kids around this state won’t get channeled into the college prep pipeline, and they will be left out,” said Tomas Arciniega, chancellor of Cal State Bakersfield and chairman of a university Commission on Hispanic Underrepresentation.

“I think we need to move very cautiously. I’m not willing to write off a high school generation just to impose higher standards,” Arciniega said.

Roy Brophy, chairman of the Cal State Board of Trustees, said the debate over the admissions plan represents what he calls “the Cal State paradox.”

While the University of California is widely viewed as an elite institution, the Cal State universities have traditionally offered higher education to a much broader array of students. Moreover, since California is also on its way to becoming the first state where minorities make up the majority, the state universities are also seeking to enroll far more Latino and black students.

‘A Strange Mixture’

“We’re trying to open up access to minorities, reduce our remedial classes and raise our admission requirements--all at the same time,” said Brophy, a Sacramento builder. “It may sound like a strange mixture. But I’m supporting this proposal because we do have too many people coming in who are just not prepared for university work.”


In reaction to some complaints, Cal State officials said they modified the admission plan slightly so that some students who are missing one or two courses in high school could be enrolled on a “conditional” basis. But these students would be required to make up those courses.

The university also plans to monitor the new admissions standards to see if they reduce the number of minority students.

“That is certainly not our intention. We want minority students to have a higher success rate,” said William Vandament, Cal State provost. “We’re saying that admission is not sufficient. We want students to have a reasonable chance of succeeding.”


These state figures show by percentage what happened to students who entered Cal State campuses as freshman in 1978. By 1983, an average of 26% had been graduated, 19% were still enrolled and the rest had left. By contrast, 55% of students entering UCLA and 61% of those entering UC Berkeley were graduated within five years.

Still Graduated enrolled Have left STATEWIDE 26% 19% 55% San Luis Obispo 39% 16% 45% Fresno 38% 16% 46% Chico 37% 15% 48% Humbolt 28% 19% 53% San Jose 27% 19% 54% Stanislaus 29% 16% 55% Fullerton 27% 18% 55% Sacramento 28% 17% 55% Pomona 26% 18% 56% San Diego 24% 19% 56% San Francisco 22% 20% 58% Long Beach 21% 21% 58% Northridge 20% 22% 58% Bakersfield 21% 17% 62% Hayward 23% 14% 63% San Bernardino 26% 11% 63% Los Angeles 12% 23% 65% Sonoma 20% 13% 67% Dominguez Hills 19% 13% 68%