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Are Open Admissions Next?

California's Master Plan for Higher Education, which took effect in 1960, stipulates that the top 12.5 percent of high-school graduates qualify for admission to the various campuses of the University of California, and the top 33.3 percent qualify for admission to those of California State. The rest were automatically admitted to community colleges.  Over the years, the policy has worked well.  But pressure is now building to change the share of students eligible to attend UC and Cal State ("To boost admissions of Californians, state should revamp education master plan, report says," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12).

A new report by the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity recommends amending the requirements to the top 15 percent and top 40 percent, respectively.  The reason given is that by 2030, California will have 1.1 million fewer college-educated workers than the economy will need. First, I question if the projected shortfall takes into account the kind of workers needed. I doubt that liberal arts majors will be in demand.  Instead, I suspect the need will be for science, technology, engineering, and math majors or those with other similar skills.

But more troubling is the trend toward lowering standards for admission.  In 1969, the City University of New York began a policy of open admissions.  The plan guaranteed all graduates of New York City high schools a place in one of the CUNY colleges. Until then, CUNY had offered a solid education at a low cost to many of New York's working-class families.  Its graduates included Felix Frankfurter, Jonas Salk, Colin Powell, Frank McCourt, and many others of renown.

Whether the change was good or bad still remains a source of controversy (City On A Hill, Addison-Wesley, 1994). But in the eyes of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and others, the system had decayed.  He appointed a task force that was headed by Yale President Benno Schmidt.  It ordered a major overhaul under the direction of Matthew Goldstein.  He imposed demanding admissions requirements and clear annual performance metrics, and hired almost 2,000 strong faculty members.  As a result, applicants with better academic records applied, six-year graduation rates rose, and scholarships increased ("What Education Reform Looks Like," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 19, 2013).

No one knows what will happen if the California Master Plan is changed.  But I doubt it will have the intended effect.  Giving degrees out based on diluted standards devalues their worth and gives their holders an inflated sense of their ability.  I can foresee a time when Gresham's Law will come into play. The true value of a bachelor's degree will be quite different from the value people must accept because of government decree.  Community colleges offer a far better way of preparing students—and at a bargain price to boot.  Let's not persist in the fiction that a bachelor's degree is for everyone.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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