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Nellie Meyer looked over the charts loaded with numbers on San Diego State’s enrollment and admissions, trying to understand what they meant for the teens in San Diego classrooms.
It was September 2009. San Diego State was abruptly changing its admissions rules and Meyer was supposed to weigh in as part of a special committee. Under a longstanding policy, the university had to consult with the group if it wanted to roll out the changes on short notice.
But Meyer, who represented San Diego Unified schools, wasn’t sure what the changes would mean. She had never seen the numbers before. And it was almost too late for Meyer to make any suggestions. The changes were going into effect the next day. By the time the San Diego Unified school board weighed in two weeks later, condemning the changes as unfair to local students, they were already done.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After a similar San Diego State controversy more than seven years ago, the California State University system created rules that require colleges to air such changes more than a year before they go into effect. The idea was to give ample warning to students who would be impacted. Latino activists pushed for advisory committees like the one that Meyer now serves on.
But there was a catch. Universities could push through changes faster if they were in dire straits because of unexpected enrollment pressures.
And that is exactly what SDSU did.
SDSU followed the rules: The school had to get approval from the CSU chancellor to shorten the timeline. It did. It had to consult with the advisory committee before the changes happened. It did — just one day before the rules went into effect in October. That committee met more than a week after the changes had been e-mailed to students, discussed with faculty and even reported in the local newspaper.
“It was kind of a done deal,” said committee member Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services at the San Diego Community College District. “Do we like it? No. But they’re having terrible budget problems.”
University officials said they wish it had happened differently, but the school had to act fast. It was under pressure to admit fewer students because of statewide budget cuts. SDSU had to cut enrollment by more than 4,600 students — nearly 11 percent of its undergraduate enrollment.
The “draconian, fast-paced decision” was designed to give the school more control over its numbers, said Sandra Cook, SDSU’s assistant vice president of academic affairs. She acknowledged that the consultation with the advisory committee had been imperfect.
“It was the best that we could do,” she said.
Alfredo Beltran, a senior at San Diego High School of Business, only applied to one school this fall: San Diego State. The 18-year-old new parent needed to stay in San Diego, close to his young daughter. Before the changes, Beltran would have automatically gotten into the school because he was a local student who met minimum standards. Now he can’t be so sure. He’s still waiting to find out whether he’ll get in.
“They have to make sure that you’re good enough,” Beltran said.
Though local students will still get an edge over out-of-town applicants with the same academic chops, SDSU broke with an old guarantee that it would accept any local high schooler who met the minimum standards. The change was deeply controversial. San Diego Unified pushed the university to reverse it entirely. State Assemblyman Marty Block slammed the plan, saying it was unnecessary and calling the budget woes an “excuse” to renege on the guarantee.
The clash centers on whether SDSU really needed to end the local guarantee or whether it simply chose to. Ethan Singer, associate vice president for academic affairs, said the school risked over-enrolling if local high school seniors applied and showed up in significantly higher numbers than last year. Critics question whether the numbers were likely to increase so much.
University officials also wanted to keep enough out-of-area students, to diversify the school and populate and pay for the dorms. Block is unconvinced those factors should trump the school’s promise to local students. He is mulling new legislation to make the process more open in the future. Like the activists from years ago, he wants to prevent what happened from happening again — again.
The complex and bitter debates over the admissions changes didn’t take place at the advisory committee meeting, whose members are appointed by SDSU’s president. Most participants came from SDSU. Just four or five members from the 20-person committee represented outside groups.
While several committee members praised the university staff for giving them valuable information, they said they didn’t grasp the impact of the changes well enough to question them or raise concerns.
Meyer said the meeting didn’t seem very different than their routine meetings. Another member, Tim Allen of the City Heights Educational Collaborative, said their questions were readily answered, but he didn’t completely understand the changes’ effects at the time. And Mayra Gutierrez, who went to the meeting for Sweetwater schools, said she didn’t understand the fallout either.
Gutierrez said she realized later that the changes could put Sweetwater students at a disadvantage. But at the time, “I didn’t articulate it. I think I was just processing it all.”
Committee members didn’t have a chance to review the information before their meeting.
SDSU officials said they were uneasy about sending out information before the committee met in late September, even though they had already e-mailed students, talked to faculty and been interviewed by the press about the changes.
“This stuff is very easily misinterpreted. It’s not helpful to give the materials in advance,” Singer said. “We have to go through this page by page, take questions, get comments.”
SDSU has been criticized for shortchanging the committee in the past. Cecil Steppe, who recently rejoined the group, said he felt like the university “wanted a rubber stamp” in years past.
“They’d throw all these numbers and charts and graphs at you and you have a two-hour window to try to understand something instead of being able to sit down in advance and study it,” Steppe said.
One of the committee’s former student members, Mark Pajela, wrote a letter years ago to the president complaining that it had too little time to evaluate information. That “undermines the purpose, legitimacy and integrity of the committee and its advice,” Pajela wrote. It felt inadequate.
“I thought we’d actually have an advisory role,” Pajela said recently. “But that never happened.”