The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."...  ...John F. Kennedy (inaugural address, January 20, 1961).

Commentary of the Day - November 24, 2003:  Making the Most of Adversity - or How to Improve Quality in the Face of Budget Cuts.

Reality is beginning to set in here in the "Golden State".  We are slowly coming to the realization that the miracles we thought were going to happen simultaneously with the recall of Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been just wishful thinking.  The multi-billion dollar state budget deficit remains along with the usual partisan gridlock in the state legislature.  In fact, with a stroke of the pen Governor Schwarzenegger added another $4 billion to the deficit when he reinstated the reduced tax on motor vehicles.

Schwarzenegger has been a bit more honest with the public about the extent of the problems than Davis was; however, his proposed solutions so far seem like deja vu all over again.  He has proposed placing a $15 billion deficit reduction bond on the upcoming statewide primary election ballot.  This will allow the state to pay off the current deficit over the next 30 years (and, of course, will cost the taxpayers another $15 billion or so in interest).  Schwarzenegger wanted to tie the deficit reduction bond proposal to one that would place a constitutional cap on state spending.  Unfortunately, the California constitution requires such ballot measures to be limited to a single topic, so a separate ballot measure will be needed to cap spending.

If these pass, they will buy some time for Arnold to work with the legislature to figure out a way to solve the the $8 billion structural gap that exists between mandated state spending and expected state revenues.  Meanwhile, he has put a hiring freeze into effect; and, the legislature is looking to pare those few segments of the state budget for which spending is not mandated by previously passed voter initiatives and constitutional provisions.

Two of the state's three systems of public higher education -- the University of California system and the California State University system -- have no protection at all from budget cuts, while the state's community college system has some limited protection.  Both the University of California system, which receives about a third of its funding from the state general fund, and the California State University system, which receives more than 85% of its funding from the general fund, already have been told by the legislature that there will be no money available to fund increased student enrollment for the coming academic year.

This means that the California State University system will have to begin turning away some student who are at least technically qualified to enroll because they are in the top third of their high school graduating class.  The CSU will give first priority to community college transfer students who meet the transfer requirements.  This is a reasonable decision, since these students have demonstrated that they are capable of benefiting from college-level work; and, they were given the commitment that a spot would be available for them in the CSU system when they completed their community college work.

Students who attempt to enter the CSU system as freshmen, however, will feel the pinch.  Not all of those students who are eligible to be admitted as freshmen will get in.  Unfortunately, the CSU places a higher value on "diversity" than it does on "quality", so rather than giving first priority to the students whose high school records and test scores indicate that they have the best chance of succeeding in college, the system uses a truly mind-boggling approach to controlling freshmen enrollment.  It simply enforces an earlier application deadline.

At the same time, system spokesperson Clara Potes-Fellow has stated that the CSU will continue to admit some students who do not meet its basic admission requirements, i.e. who are not in the top third of their high school graduating class.  These students who may have special talents in music, the arts, or athletics, or who may come from poor families or disadvantaged high schools, amount to about 6% of the freshman class.  This again is intended to show that the CSU is a truly egalitarian system.

However, the reality of the CSU is that "diversity" is guaranteed by demographics.  California is a remarkably diverse state.  There no longer is an ethnic majority group in the state.  The students enrolled at the various state university campuses generally reflect the remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity of the communities that these campuses serve.  Even here at Krispy Kreme U. (Cal State Fullerton), which is located in affluent Orange County, our student body is exceptionally diverse.  Approximately one-third of our students are Hispanic, one-third Asian, and one-third Anglo.  Minor changes in admission standards would not change that mix significantly.

However, we do have evidence that students from high schools in the poorer areas of our service area apply for admission later than those from the wealthier high schools.  The reasons for this are no doubt complex -- fewer counselors, less savvy parents, etc.  These poorer high schools also tend to serve more minority students.  Thus, rolling back application deadlines is likely to have the opposite effect on both ethnic and economic diversity from that intended by the social engineers over at the Chancellor's Office.

It seems to the IP that the fairer approach would be to leave the application deadlines where they normally are, but to base admission on a slight modification of our current "eligibility index".  The current index is a combination of high school GPA and SAT I (or ACT) test scores.  Students with a 3.00 or higher GPA are automatically eligible, while those with GPA's between 2.00 and 2.99 must have a compensating SAT I (or ACT) score for regular admission.

If we were to combine the high school GPA with the SAT I (or ACT) test for all applicants, each applicant then could be ranked by eligibility index.  Then each campus could work its way down the eligibility index until it ran out of available slots.  This procedure would not penalize students from the high schools in poorer neighborhoods, who traditionally apply later than those from the wealthier areas.

Clearly the eligibility index is not a perfect measure of a student's promise.  But given the choices we have to make in these hard economic times, it does seem to the IP that it is a better method of rationing than the early deadline approach.  The eligibility index approach would help to preserve economic diversity in the CSU as well as ethnic diversity; and, at the same time might just help to improve overall quality.

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