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UC, CSU systems aim to smarten up student body

After years of steady and often inadvertent dumbing down, it’s plain this fall that both California’s major public university systems are determined to smarten up their student bodies.

At the almost two-dozen campuses of the California State University, this is evidenced by the ever-lessening tolerance of students needing to take and then repeat remedial classes covering subjects they should have learned in high school.

Over the last two years, Cal State has gradually toughened its treatment of such students, sending hundreds away and essentially telling them to hone their skills at community colleges before returning to the big leagues of academe.

Cal State officials also began encouraging high schoolers to take tests in their junior year to see where they might need remedial work, encouraging them to bone up on those subjects during their last year of high school in order not to waste time in college.

Now it’s the turn of the University of California, where dumbing down has taken the form of changed entrance exams, automatic admission for students in the top 4 percent of their high school classes over students who may have taken far more challenging work at other schools with stronger curriculum, and increased emphasis on hardship in considering who to admit.

The 4 percent standard has been so destructive that some students with Scholastic Assessment Test scores in the 800s out of a possible 1600 now whine publicly when they get admitted to UC, but not the particular campus they want.

This steadily easing approach to UC admissions took a sudden turn for the tough last summer. Drawing little attention, the university’s Academic Assembly - representing the entire faculty - abruptly raised admission standards, a move that will decrease the share of UC-eligible high school graduates from about 14.4 percent of each year’s class to just 12.5 percent.

After the three years it will take to phase in the change, that will likely cut the pool of eligibles for admission by about 6,000 students annually. All those new high school graduates will still easily qualify for admission to the less-elite Cal State.

The change was the result of a May study by the California Postsecondary Education Commission which found the existing UC requirement of a 2.8 (B-) grade point average in UC-required courses was producing a larger pool of students eligible for admission than what was envisioned in the state’s vintage 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

The plan, still nominally operative, sees UC promising to take the top 12.5 percent of high school grads, a figure that will now be reached by raising the required GPA to 3.1 (slightly over a B average).

By coincidence, those 6,000 students who will be rendered ineligible each year make up a number very close to the 7,000 eligible freshman applicants who were steered toward community colleges for their first two years of higher education as a result of a springtime budget deal between university officials and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The new standards are something of a vindication for UC Regent John Moores, the San Diego Padres baseball owner who has challenged eligibility standards for the last couple of years, claiming the system was setting standards too low.

“Kids with average grades and average test scores shouldn’t be going to the University of California, and they have been, no question,” Moores told reporters after the May report became public. “These are kids who should be directed to the community colleges.”

Soon they will be shunted there or to Cal State campuses, where the Master Plan demands admission for the top one-third of each year’s high school grads.

Some high school guidance counselors complained that the new standard will increase anxiety for students applying to colleges. That will likely be true for borderline students who dislike academic competition. But the real discomfort may be suffered by the guidance counselors themselves, as their job performance sometimes is judged by how many of their charges land in college, and where.

In fact, the increasing number of students getting 2.8 GPAs is most likely at least partly due to grade inflation, with teachers reluctant to give students low grades unless they feel they must.

In effect, the new UC standards are an inevitable result of such inflation, and the bar should rise again if grade inflation continues.

That’s the only way this system - once rated the best public university in America, but no longer - can start restoring its stature after decades of decline.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.