COVID Levels California’s Playing Field

These Are Critical Weeks in College Aspirations

Students, think big. UCs and CalState are now blind to the test-prep advantage because they've dropped the SAT and ACT requirement. | Credit: courtesy

While the pandemic has erected many obstacles for this year’s college applicants, it has created a few opportunities as well. This is especially true for socioeconomically disadvantaged students who are applying to schools in the UC and CSU systems.

With the California State University and University of California schools not factoring SAT or ACT scores into their admissions decisions, poorer students suddenly find themselves on a much leveler playing field. The ability to secure private test prep has long afforded wealthier kids an advantage in the admissions process, sometimes boosting their standardized test scores by hundreds of points. With the move to a temporary test blind policy, that disparity has evaporated.

As the executive director of Mission Scholars, a program dedicated to minimizing the impact of socioeconomic disadvantages on high-achieving students, I cannot overemphasize the unique opportunity this situation presents for low-income students. As I have been telling my students throughout college application season: the admissions process will still be skewed in favor of wealthier students, but this fall, test scores are off the table for our in-state institutions.

Cassie Lancaster | Credit: Courtesy

I recently spoke with Edith Cortes, Santa Barbara High School’s Program for Effective Access to College (PEAC) counselor, and she echoed these sentiments.

“It’s a big help, especially for the first-generation, underrepresented student population that I serve,” she said.

Cortes sees more of these students applying than in previous years, specifically because of the dropped testing requirement.

“That was a big stressor every year. The students were the ones disqualifying themselves. They used to look at the Cal State eligibility index and say, ‘I’m not going to get into that school, so I’m not going to apply.’ This year, they’re not disqualifying themselves.”

California’s university systems have tried to address other pandemic-related obstacles as well. Before the pandemic, when things were a bit more straightforward (I use that term loosely, as things are rarely straightforward in college admissions), students needed to earn a 3.0 or higher to be eligible for UC admission, and both the CSU and UC schools produced a set of A-G subject requirements that all applicants were required to meet prior to enrollment.

This year, while a 3.0 is still the minimum GPA requirement for UC admission, students who were not able to earn letter grades in the required A-G classes during their spring semester, as well as during this past summer, will not be penalized.

In other words, if a low-income student’s grades suffered because they had spotty internet access, or they were suddenly needed at home to care for their siblings, or had to work a part-time job to help their family survive the sudden economic downturn — all situations that have been common among my students — opting for “credit” rather than a grade will not hurt them.

Additionally, both the UC and Cal State universities will continue to waive application fees for up to four campuses each for qualified low-income students. Between the two, that’s eight in-state college applications that students can submit for free.

All of these developments are a boon to students, especially to those who have felt left behind during the pandemic. Cortes is excited that her Effective Access students seem open to expanding their college lists.

“I tell them, ‘If you have a 3.0, then in addition to the Cal States, we’re going to look at least a couple of UC campuses, too.’”

I’m seeing the same thing among my own students at Mission Scholars, and with UC and CSU application deadlines looming, I would love it if every high school student out there realized how critical the next week or two might be to their college aspirations.

If I could, here is what I would tell every one of them:

In the decade I have been advising college applicants, there has never been a moment quite like this. With regard to California state schools, the proverbial playing field has never been this level. So, no matter how difficult this year has been for you on a personal level, this is not the time to give up. In fact, this is the moment to push harder, to dream bigger, and to reach higher. This is a unique opportunity, and it might never happen again.

Cassie Lancaster is the executive director of Mission Scholars, a program of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.


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