Lifetimes Hang in the Balance in the Mail

The mail slot is a scuffed brass rectangle in the stucco. Thin letters fit through it, thick ones don't. The members of the Class of 2000 tell each other that the bad news comes in the thin ones. Thick is what you pray for. Thick is good.

The teenager has watched the mail slot for weeks now, worrying, which turns out to have more in common with praying than she'd realized. Never before have so many college applications been filed as have been this year in California. Never before have so many mail slots been so scrutinized.

She worries and watches, a child of middling privilege, not daring imagine how kids with fewer options must be coping today. This is the week when all the letters that are going to be sent will have been stamped by the gods of college admissions. Today's a mail day. Let us pray.

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California is a land of many pressing issues, but anyone blessed with a mail slot and a high school senior will be hard pressed this week to name one more compelling than the school situation now. It is the best of times and the worst of times, as the required reading might put it. Two generations ago, it was a big deal in some quarters just to graduate from eighth grade. Today, an overwhelming majority of students leave 12th grade with diplomas in hand.

And in ways that went undiscussed in past generations, kids today understand that when people talk about the "school situation," what they're talking about is economic class. In a knowledge economy, only the educated can move up the ladder. There is progress in appreciating that.

On the other side of the ledger, though, are the numbers that stem from this good news. The children of the baby boom generation are now coming of age in record droves. For the disadvantaged in California, the competition has been made worse by the end of affirmative action and the decline of urban school funding. And though education is key, it is no guarantee of class transcendence. In ways we still don't talk about frankly, success is deeply correlated with self-confidence and upbringing. Perhaps our biggest failure is in not acknowledging the vast number of California children who are psychologically and culturally unprepared for school.

Now--incoming--is Tidal Wave II, as the demographers call this latest threat to the California dream of public schools as a leveler. By the time next year's high school freshmen are ready for college, graduates will outstrip college placements in California by nearly 300,000 kids. Never have so many Californians from so many cultures aimed for college, and never have so many been so set up for disappointment. It is the best and the worst of news.

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This paradox has made it hard to plan for Tidal Wave II, which is already lapping up on California in thin letters from UC campuses that even average students here once saw as sure bets. Bright kids with their hearts set on the most popular UCs have been warned to prepare for the stiffest competition ever, not just at UCLA and Berkeley--which Californians have long considered "exclusive"--but also at campuses like UC Santa Barbara, where applications this year shot up a whopping 17%.

At Garfield High School, Julie Nielson--one of the few real guidance counselors left at this state's inner-city high schools--has gotten her East L.A. charges into Yale and Harvard, but has heard through the grapevine that UCLA, which in past years has taken 20- and 30-plus of her seniors, can accept only about 16 Garfield kids this year. "A kid who was ranked third out of 751 was just rejected by UC Davis," she said. "It's crazy out there."

And the UC campuses are just the big-ticket example. A growing number of Cal States and community colleges are also reaching capacity. Transfers from community colleges to the UC campuses--once a shot at class advancement for poorer students--were in the single digits in 1998 at inner-city campuses. Counseling cutbacks were part of the problem; the other part was unprepared kids.

It's a complex situation. The last time there was this big a bulge in the population, the state simply built five UC campuses, five Cal States and 32 community colleges. This time, there is talk of subsidized summer school and a small, new UC Merced, but also realization that more room is only part of it. The rest lies on a frontier that perhaps only a place as gutsy as California would dare explore--the question of what it actually takes, in psychological and cultural support, to achieve economic and social mobility. It's time to talk about class, before only this state's privileged have a prayer of a future. The mailman's on his way.

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Shawn Hubler's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.

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