Getting Into College in California

If you’re the parent of a teenager, you may not have heard the good news yet. The number of high school graduates, which has been growing every year, is peaking this spring. The numbers will continue to shrink until about 2015.

Of course, this won’t seem like much of a consolation if you’ve read the annual media dispatches that bemoan that the Ivy League continues to grow even more selective. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, noted this week that Harvard’s just released admissions statistics show that it’s acceptance rate reached yet another historic low — 7.1%.

For 99.8% of the teenagers heading to college, the numbers from Harvard and the other Ivy League schools are utterly irrelevant. What people, particularly in California, worry about is what appears to be the growing exclusivity of the state schools.

A front page article in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday, must have freaked out a lot of parents when they read that 61,663 kids applied to San Diego State which has 7,022 freshmen openings. What the reporter failed to mention –it would have dampened the shock value of the stats — is that SDSU accepts far more kids than those numbers suggests. Because many of the kids who apply to the school will go elsewhere, SDSU extends acceptances to far more students.

That said, high schools students in California will continue to find it challenging getting into the most popular state public schools. To cope with that reality, I’d suggest that families need to think more creatively.

One of the problem that California teenagers face is that everybody is applying to the same schools. The reality is that 84% of kids in California go to state public institutions.

An obvious strategy then is to investigate schools that everybody else in California are overlooking. In other words, check out public and private schools in the other 49 states! Schools elsewhere in the country love California students, in part, because these students rarely express any interest in educational opportunities elsewhere. Because Californians are so highly prized, these students don’t have to be nearly as accomplished as the admissions tyrants at UCLA and Berkeley require. Not by a long shot.

Schools will shower even “B” students with generous financial aid/merit awards if they represent the right academic fit. Families who look elsewhere can ultimately end up spending less on outside colleges and universities than if they stuck with the overcrowded state schools in California, where kids typically can’t graduate in four years. San Diego State’s four-year graduation rate is less than 14%!

I’d also suggest that parents and kids really investigate state schools closely to find the best fits. Unfortunately, I think a lot of kids pick schools because that’s where their mom or dad or cousins attended. Or they pick schools based on the flawed national rankings.

It’s not helpful to take the attitude of a friend of mine, whose entire family for two generations has gone to UCLA and Berkeley. She’s got one kid in UCLA now, but she is frantic at the thought that her sophomore daughter in high school won’t make it. When I suggested that she consider other schools, she looked at me as if I had suggested that her child consider McDonald’s as a career.

While many of the brightest kids only want to go to a handful of the UC’s, there are plenty of state schools that can provide a solid education that aren’t mobbed with applicants. A wonderful college alternatives are public liberal arts colleges, which can provide a more personalized educational setting with smaller class sizes and access to professors. (What a concept!) The two public liberal arts colleges in California are Sonoma State and Humboldt State.

Since the majority of kids in California and elsewhere end up at huge state schools, in my next post, I will run an excerpt of my upcoming book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, that shows how to make attending these schools a more intimate experience.

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  1. your comments imploring folks to explore other options OUTSIDE califormia is spot on. somehow, parents have fallen into the trap that california is the only place on the planet worthy of consideration – as an abode and as a place for college. having lived around the country as a career navel officer, i can attest that this is just not the case. additionally, there are a variety of great public and private school offerings outside of the state for those able and willing to look outside their pre-conceived “box”. after graduating from valhalla high school in el cajon in 2002, my older son had some interesting school choices – and decided that denison university in granville, ohio ( denison – who?; granville – where?) was the best fit for him. he chose well, both from a small liberal arts campus environment (approximately 2100 students) standpoint, as well as a college that was financially extremely well-endowed – and willing to pay for quality out-of-state students to enhance their diversity numbers. my only regret is that we did not know enough about the college financial aid “game” to receive their maximum offer. still, he graduated with a high value degree, played college baseball for four years, earned himself a tryout with the padres – and is now embarked on a satisfying career in the los angeles area.

    thanks for your continued great advice. i look forward to your column every weekend.

    bill jezierski