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Cal State universities may up their college admissions requirements. But will that hurt low-income students?

Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- As a high school freshman, Jennifer Velasquez worked every day after classes helping her mom sell elotes, raspados and tacos from a street cart in East Los Angeles. With rent to pay and siblings to support, they would often work late into the night, sometimes until 2 a.m. -- and she would get only a few hours of sleep.

It's why, in part, she failed Algebra I.

She repeated the class her sophomore year, and then moved on junior and senior years to Geometry and Algebra II, determined to meet the requirements for admission to the California State University system. She was accepted to California State, Los Angeles, and, last month, Velasquez, 19, became the first in her family to attend college.

"It was difficult," Velasquez said. "If I had to do four years of math, it would have been more difficult."

Velasquez is among the students, parents, educators and Los Angeles school board members who are opposed to a proposal by Cal State University to require a fourth year of math, science or other quantitative high school coursework for admission, laying bare a tension between two imperatives in California education.

On the one hand, Cal State is seeking to raise standards and academic preparation for all high school students, especially in math. Yet this objective has become mired in a debate about disparities in educational access and quality that disproportionately harm high school students of color and those from low-income families in the state. Some fear that these students' access to Cal State will diminish if the proposal is adopted.

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"Black and Latinx students and low-income students can and do achieve at high levels," said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit group focused on educational equity, at a recent hearing on the proposal. "But when we look at other facts, at data on access and on opportunity, it becomes clear that these students are also given barriers by our education system that limit their access to the teachers and to the courses that they need to attend college."

The Cal State proposal would require incoming freshmen, beginning in 2026, to have taken four years of quantitative reasoning, which the university defines as "the ability to think and reason intelligently about measurement in the real world." The board is scheduled to hear a formal proposal later this month and could vote on it as soon as November.

The requirement could be met by an additional year of math or science, an elective with quantitative content such as statistics or computer science, or some career and technical education courses. An exemption would be allowed for students who cannot meet the requirement because their school doesn't offer a qualifying course.

James Minor, assistant vice chancellor, noted this isn't the first time that controversial policies that try to improve student success and close equity gaps have been proposed. He cited the development of the "A-G" requirements, a sequence of 15 college-prep courses required for admission to the Cal States and UCs. More recently, Cal State decided to do away with non-credit remedial classes, after finding that they cost students more money and time, without being particularly effective.

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