How Data Analysis Helped California State University Make an Important Decision

California State University (CSU), the largest university system in the nation, recently confirmed that they were not proceeding with a proposal that would have required students to take an additional year of high school math, science, or other quantitative reasoning course for admissions—in part, in response to some surprising findings from MDRC’s independent analysis of the proposed policy.

The proposal to change the admissions requirements had been controversial. While proponents argued that the additional preparation would lead more students to graduate college and would diminish inequities in college success, critics were concerned it could perversely become a barrier to admissions and worsen inequities in college access.

Confronted with these divergent predictions, the CSU Board of Trustees turned to independent data analysis to inform their decision-making and to help develop some common understanding among the various institutions and advocates involved. They commissioned MDRC to conduct an analysis of what the likely effects of this new policy would be.

CSU’s goal in adding another quantitative reasoning course to its admission requirements was to improve college graduation rates by better preparing students for college-level mathematics and other courses that require quantitative skills. MDRC was tasked with understanding the potential effects the proposed policy change might have on students’ college access and success, particularly for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

MDRC researchers interviewed CSU and district-level representatives and high school staff members and CSU students to understand their perspectives about the proposed policy and how it would be implemented. We also conducted analyses of hundreds of thousands of student- and school-level records, provided by the CSU system and the California Department of Education, which has made great strides in recent years in collecting and securing individual high school course data for all public school students across the state.

What did we find? One thing that administrators and advocates were both surprised to learn was that almost all students who met the current CSU enrollment requirements were already taking and passing an additional quantitative reasoning course in high school that would fulfill the proposed new requirement. This held true for student groups that are currently underrepresented in college admissions, including students of color and students from low-income families.

While this policy would not lessen admission inequities between socioeconomic groups, it also would most likely not worsen them. The upshot was that even though the study did find that more quantitative reasoning course-taking in high school would likely help students achieve college success, the proposed policy was unlikely to have its intended effect.

These findings, along with the concerns already voiced by many stakeholders and the incredible challenges of the pandemic, contributed to CSU’s decision to reconsider their proposal. Instead of changing the admission requirements, CSU plans to redouble its efforts to ensure that middle and high school students, especially those who face disparities in college access, receive high-quality quantitative reasoning courses prior to college. One way to do this is by responding to the need to train more diverse math and science teachers and to support their retention. CSU also plans to strengthen its partnerships with K-12 school districts to develop and provide more summer enrichment programs and high school mathematics bridge courses

Higher education policymakers often employ data analysis to understand the effect of either a proposed policy or a program that has already been implemented. In the CSU case, by providing new insights to higher education administrators, data analysis helped them understand the potential effects of a proposed change, reshaping the debate with information that helped bridge divergent viewpoints and saving time and resources that could be better used elsewhere to benefit students. Surely, in a world awash in data, opportunities abound for more leaders to use this kind of powerful analysis to inform their decision making.

Susan Sepanik is a Senior Associate in MDRC’s K-12 Education policy area.