For SF State biology major Heather Smith, 33, a passion for health care was more than just a calling, it’s in her blood.
“My mom was an emergency room clerk,” Smith said. “I first saw people coming in through emergency room doors when I was in elementary school.”
The health bug bit her hard. Now she is in her senior year and studying to become a medicinal chemist. But her senior status is only honorary, she said, because most of her units are in classes she didn’t need.
Her biology classes were filled to the brim, she said, and she needed to meet unit requirements and take classes irrelevant to her major just to keep food on the table through financial aid.
Now biology and eight other majors at SF State are declaring impaction in an effort to make more room in endless wait-listed classes, and the University will hold a series of meetings to solicit feedback from the community-at-large about impacted majors.
The meetings will be at City College of San Francisco’s Multi-Use Building March 18, the SF State Library March 19 and Jefferson Union High School District March 20.
Some students and academic professionals in the community colleges are worried that the growing number of declared impacted majors is a signal of diminishing access to SF State and to the California State University system as a whole.
The CSU system was designed for open access through low GPA thresholds for admission; a 2.0 is all that’s required to transfer from a community college. But when a particular department at a university starts seeing their crowds of enrolling students turn to a flood, they need a way to manage who gets in somehow.
Enter impaction: once declared, a department sets up a secondary “gateway” for a student to declare it as a major. Beyond just getting into the school, now they have to meet a GPA requirement for that major of the department’s choosing, and though each department does it differently, often students have to take prerequisite classes to enter and fill out entry forms.
Ten majors at SF State are now impacted, and nine more majors are applying for impacted status starting in 2014: accounting for concentration in business, undeclared with major in nursing, sociology, health education, kinesiology, criminal justice, communication studies, chemistry/biochemistry and biology.
That’s nineteen total impacted majors.
SF State isn’t shutting its doors through impaction, but they’re closing that doorway just a bit, said Jane Veeder, department chair of the department of design and industry.
“The previous admission policy was — you all come. Students sorted out their own destiny,” she said.
The industrial arts department declared impaction in the Fall 2011. Their enrollment was at nearly 500 students in 2009, according to University data, and their department of about nine professors struggled to put students into their required classes.
After they declared impaction in 2011, the department’s enrollment was just over 250 students, slicing its number of students nearly in half in just its first semester of impaction.
Most departments saw similar patterns. Psychology, for instance, saw a drop from 1,400 students to only around 950 when they declared impaction in 2010.
Behind the change in enrollment are a change in requirements. Instead of simply declaring their major as industrial arts, or any other department of design major, a student now had to fill out a specific application.
SF State isn’t the only one of the 23 colleges in the CSU system — all except four have impacted majors. Five colleges even share one special distinction: Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego, San Luis Obispo and San Jose universities have declared all of their majors impacted, according to California State University data.
When students are turned away from the CSU system, the only place they have left to go is a community college. And they push the lower achieving students out of those schools, said Karen Saginor, president of the academic senate at City College of San Francisco.
“(Students) take classes they don’t need while they wait for a CSU slot to open,” he said. He did, however, point to one solution community colleges worked out with the CSU system.
Heather Smith saw that at her community college as well. She transferred to SF State from El Camino Compton Center, formerly known as Compton College.
She had two jobs while attending Compton College, one at a Starbucks and one in a chemist’s lab at University of Southern California.
“I’d be up at three in the morning (for work), it was brutal sometimes,” she said. “(Other days) I’d be leaving work from the lab at USC at one in the morning, and school was ever present. I was really burnt out.”
And students like her are on the rise. A 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics showed more than 80 percent of part-time students worked full-time in 2005, which was the year the most recent data was available. The number of full-time students who also worked grew every year since 1970 to 50 percent working full-time in 2005.
It’s precisely those students that departments are worried about shutting out when they consider impaction, Jo Volkert, interim vice president for student affairs and enrollment, said.
“Departments are reluctant to even consider (impaction) if they think they’ll block someone from coming to the University,” she said. “Part of that balancing act is giving them access to the University, and once they get here, that we can actually give them the classes they need.”
But, before picking up pitchforks and torches and rallying against the University for shutting students out, Volkert warns that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In fact, she said having less students in a major can sometimes help.
“We call that authentic access,” she said. “We don’t want to let them in and say ‘oh by the way it’s going to take you 12 years to finish,’ because that’s helping nobody.”
When a department declares impaction more students are able to get the classes they need and graduate quickly, accelerating what’s called the “time-to-degree,” she said. The data shows that impacted departments graduate students faster.
But just why those students are graduating faster is a question that’s tough to gather data for.
“We don’t know yet how it will all play out,” she said. “We’re being very conscious of the fact that we need to make sure what the unintended consequences are and what other kinds of effects on the entire enrollment population.”
Notably, SF State has not seen a drop in overall enrollment, and has not seen state funding affected by enrollment fluctuations. Overall enrollment is “very strong and stable,” according to Volkert.
But just because the University is maintaining its enrollment doesn’t mean students aren’t being pushed down the system to the community colleges. Unfortunately, SF State doesn’t have much of a choice.
Impaction is one of the only tools in a school’s tool box, Jane Veeder, department of design chair, said. As classes are cut and enrollment swells, the money to fix it all just isn’t there.
“It’d be great if we had all the resources, but we don’t,” she said. “It may not be our ideal California, but it’s what’s happening.”
And the state’s 112 community colleges are facing funding cuts as well, forcing them to turn away hundreds of thousands of students, according to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office website.
55 percent of CSU students start at a community college, according to the California Community College Chancellor’s office data mart.
As for Smith, students like her in Biology may soon be able to actually get the classes they need to graduate on time, but the price may be too high, she said.
She worries for the students she saw at Compton College that were like herself — or had it even harder, raising families while attending school.
“There’ll be another me out there, trying to transfer,” she said.
And if she was that student, facing impaction to get into Biology after her ten years of community college, and was denied?
“I’d feel robbed,” she said