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The BIG Problem With California College (And What You Can Do About It)

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

March 23, 2019

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California College

Last year, a west-coast student who applied to Cornell was pleased to be deemed “likely to admit.” But that same student was rejected by her California state campus.

Why? She was good enough for the Ivy League, but not good enough for UC Santa Barbara?

Why is 4.06 the average GPA to make the cut at the University of California? Why are the acceptance rates for dozens of completely average colleges across the golden state plummeting, with less than half of applicants finding a spot?

I have one word for you: impaction.

What is Impaction?

Impaction is what happens when your state effectively runs out of money. It’s what happens when the cost of living rises like Pacific waves and government budgets are stretched to bursting. It’s what happens when you’re in such desperate need of income that you consider placing a tax on texting.

Texting tax

Impaction is what happens when there are 400,000 students graduating from high school every year, but your colleges are already full, so you have nowhere to put them. Too many butts, not enough seats.

You can’t build facilities. You can’t add new buildings. You can’t hire new teachers. You can’t do anything to meet the new demand placed on you for higher education. You just don’t have the money.

This immense shortage of higher education has suddenly made California colleges the most exclusive club on the west coast. Every year, hundreds of thousands of completely average students are pitted against each other in a vicious fight for admission to completely average schools.

You know what schools are typically fought over in this manner? Harvard and Yale. But California students aren’t fighting because the schools they want to attend carry the magical career-guaranteeing reputation of Harvard and Yale (though some do). It’s because there’s nowhere else to go.

And, unfortunately for those students of entirely-average intellect, it’s pretty much the A-plusers who are winning that fight. Turns out, when your school receive hundreds of thousands of applications every year, Ivy League reputation or not, you receive the right to be choosy about who you let in. And why wouldn’t you choose the best?

Impaction has created a serious hurdle for students trying to get into college. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. It’s hindering students’ ability to get out.

Imagine what happens when almost every student in a maxed-out school needs to take English 101 to fulfill a general education requirement. Course registration becomes a race almost as dirty as the application process. If you don’t click faster than the next guy, you’ll end up sitting out until next semester. Or the next one. Or the next one.

This slowed graduation is only exacerbating the situation at impacted Californian schools. The state of California itself concluded this graduation delay, if not reversed immediately, may have major negative consequences on their future economy… which is kind of what got them into this mess in the first place.

Can Anything Be Done?

Unfortunately, while “just build new campuses” sounds like a great solution, money doesn’t just grow on palm trees. And besides, the time it would take to plan, construct, and staff these schools still wouldn’t help the students being excluded by their local campuses right now.

So, the state has attempted to find another reaction to the impaction protraction:

Filtering students based on geography.

As we mentioned earlier, California enrollment offices are filled to the brim with applications from Ivy League geniuses and perfect SAT scores, including thousands from out of state. They have the option to be picky.

But the state colleges as a whole have decided to tip the scales, giving preferential treatment to local applicants. So, UC Los Angeles is going to prefer a Los Angeles candidate over one from Sacramento and a Sacramento applicant over a Texan.

Unfortunately, due to the immense application numbers, students are still held to the highest of standards, needing top-of-the-line brain cells to gain admittance (especially at UCLA, which has always been a competitive school). But simply being from the local area will at least give Californian applicants an edge.

Filtering students based on student status.

Many schools have an understandable bias toward freshmen. After all, more freshman = more courses bought = more revenue for the school. They’re literally the most valuable kind of student a college can find. This is no different in California.

If you keep up with the Unbound blog, you know we have a special love for transferring credit, especially credit earned online. It can be one of the best ways to save money on your degree. But, we have to admit, that’s probably not the best option for hopeful California applicants. Earning transfer credit might lower your place in the pecking order. And there’s nothing worse in California than being lower in the pecking order. (Except maybe LA rush hour traffic.)

As always, there are some exceptions to the rule. For instance, dual credit isn’t penalized the same way transfer credit is, since dual credit is an indication that the student is a cut above the rest of their peers, thus, a better student for a school to nab. Another exception would be students transferring specifically from California community colleges. But that’s a topic which deserves a blog post all its own.

Filtering by degree.

It’s worth noting the quirks of the impaction problem—specifically, that different programs are affected differently. For instance, while one school may have an average acceptance rate of 28% and SAT expectation of 1250, their Engineering program might be more popular—and, thus, tougher to get into. Acceptance into Engineering might be closer to 10% with a 1400 SAT.

So, in order to take advantage of the space available, colleges have introduced certain measures which—intentional or not—may encourage students to pursue some of the less popular programs. That’s what we’ll talk about next.

Delivering the California Promise.

The California Promise was the “bold measure” California put into action back in 2016 in an attempt to decrease time to graduation. This promise guarantees students early registration as well as enhanced academic advising in return for a commitment to take 15 credits per semester (approximately 5 courses) and maintain a good GPA.

Any student is eligible as long as they’re residents and have a degree plan enabling them to graduate in exactly 4 years. (Or 2 years, for transfers.) However, there are some strict stipulations for qualifying like no changing majors and absolutely no failing classes. The Promise leaves no time for retaking credits. Also, the student must be pursuing one of the less impacted majors. For instance, San Jose State University bars Nursing students (one of the most impacted degree programs) from taking advantage of the Promise.

While it’s not a magical fairyland, this program has definitely been a relief to thousands of students at a good 20 or so California State University campuses.

Unfortunately, it’s still not enough. New high school students graduate every year, joining the ranks of last year’s high school graduates, and last-last year’s high school graduates, all waiting for their shot at college. Even with the Promise, April Grommo, director of Enrollment Management Services at CSU, says “unless something changes in state funding… [impaction] is here to stay.”

When there’s no money, there’s no money. And there’s no money in California’s education system.

Advice for California Students

So, what if you’re one of those unlucky students, biting your nails over your academic future? What can you do?

Honestly, not a lot. But we know sitting on your hands doesn’t feel very good (and makes them all tingly). So our research department did come up with a few suggestions to hopefully bring back that famous California sunshine back into your future.

1. Be intellectually honest with yourself.

To get into one of the top California schools, you have to be an A+ student. Period. If you’re a B student, that doesn’t mean you can’t get into a California school, but it will be harder. A lot harder. Sorry.

So, be honest with yourself. Do you have what it takes to make it into a local school? If not, maybe consider one of these other options.

2. Identify whether you even need a 4-year credential.

We talk about this enough in other blogs, so I won’t rehash the argument here. But the gist is this: if you don’t need a college credential to do what you want to do, save yourself the time, money, and intense headache of the California system. Don’t go.

I know college is important, but it’s not necessary for every career path—don’t assume it’s necessary for yours until you do the research.

3. Know exactly which credential you need.

If you do the research and decide you do need a degree, we suggest you understand precisely which degree you need and what courses you need to take in order to earn it.

Remember what we said about clicking faster than the next guy? You can only do that if you know what classes you’re looking for. And you can only know what classes you’re looking for if you have your entire degree plan already mapped out.

Having this degree plan is also the only way to take advantage of the California Promise if that’s something you’re interested in. But with the restriction on changing majors, you’ll be stuck with what you start. So start well.

4. Apply Everywhere.

In California, you don’t have the luxury of applying to one school. When a college like CSU Long Beach (i.e. an extraordinarily average institution) sports acceptance rates like 28%, you know you’re in for a challenge.

Apply to every school you’re remotely interested in attending because when the acceptance letters are mailed out, you won’t have your pick of schools. You’ll be lucky to get accepted at all.

Though, keep in mind, if one of the colleges you’re considering applying to is a community college, that comes with a whole other bundle of specific rules and distinct limitations most students don’t have. It’s not as simple as starting then expecting your credits to transfer to university.

5. Consider graduating from an inexpensive online school in another state.

It’s not “giving up” to be realistic about the odds being not so much in your favor. As a California student, choosing an out-of-state school may be one of the few guarantees afforded to you.

Of course, the caveat of attending college out of state is always the costs associated with doing so. They’re high. Unless you find a cheaper way to go about it. Unbound is that way.

It’s our job to help students graduate college debt free. And while many of our students have been able to do that from their local colleges, a great many more have done so via inexpensive online colleges and loads of affordable transfer credit. We’ve helped many California students do exactly this.


While the situation in California is indeed more grim than hopeful, I didn’t write this post to bring you down. I did it to help you understand what you’re up against, so you can choose the best option for you.

Because you do have options.

Which will you pick? That’s up to you, your goals, and what you want out of your time in college. So be realistic and choose wisely. (And call us if you need any help.)

Special thanks to Jared Brandau, head of research at Unbound, for making this blog post possible! This gifted college super-genius graciously took time out of his busy schedule to thoroughly educate me on the scope of the impaction problem so that I could, in turn, educate you, dear reader.

As I mentioned in this article, Jared’s excellent team of advisors has already worked with hundreds of struggling California students, helping them find their best paths for reaching their college goals. They would love the chance to help you too. Just click here to talk to an advisor about your situation.

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.

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