WORDS: Brenna Swanston          PHOTOS and GRAPHICS: Samantha Sullivan

When Salinas High School senior Trent Storm submitted his Cal Poly application in November, he became one of nearly 52,000 applicants fighting to be accepted for Fall 2014. Storm and his competitors comprise the largest applicant pool in Cal Poly history, showing a possible growth in the university’s reputation among prospective college students.

“I think it’s the best state school in California,” Storm said.

The California State University (CSU) system as a whole has seen a recent increase in potential students, as has the University of California (UC) system, according to the Associated Press. An admissions trend report shows Cal Poly’s application numbers have grown at almost twice the rate of either university system.

College counselor Joann Schaper guides aspiring college students through the application process. Through her work, she has discovered students applying to universities evaluate their options based on a number of factors, including:

  • Cost
  • Location
  • Academic reputation
  • School spirit and athletics
  • Available majors
  • Class size
  • Graduate school and career placement

Cal Poly has earned a positive reputation among college applicants in almost all areas of consideration.


Cal Poly tuition is on par with the cost of other CSUs, but people commonly place its quality of education above most state universities, Schaper said.

“As parents have often said, Cal Poly offers the best education for the least money,” she said. “The cost is the same as any other CSU, but Cal Poly is by far the top target school in that system.”

Associate Vice Provost for Marketing and Enrollment Development James Maraviglia said a Cal Poly education is one of the best bargains around, which prospective students and their parents know.

Cal Poly’s primary competitors for college applicants are UC schools, Maraviglia said. The average cost of tuition for a California resident attending a UC for the 2013-2014 school year is $13,200, according to the UC admissions website. For Cal Poly, tuition for 2013-2014 costs $8,523, according to Cal Poly’s financial aid website.

After evaluating cost, most college applicants consider location.


For biological sciences sophomore Alicia Flor, San Luis Obispo was one of Cal Poly’s most attractive qualities, she said.

When deciding on colleges, Flor’s top choices were Cal Poly and University of California, Santa Barbara, she said. San Luis Obispo’s college-town setting drew her toward Cal Poly.

“It’s a small town, and I’m a small-town person, compared to Santa Barbara, which is a bigger city,” Flor said.

From the college counselor perspective, Schaper emphasized the importance of San Luis Obispo for Cal Poly’s popularity.

“San Luis Obispo has a reputation as the perfect college town,” she said. “Many of the students prefer not to be in the city and also don’t want to be in some out-of-the-way village somewhere.”

On the other hand, Azusa Pacific University communication studies senior Hannah Kenny grew up in San Luis Obispo and got into Cal Poly, but ultimately decided against it because of its shortage of diversity, she said.

“You get stuck in the very small town,” Kenny said. “It’s great for outdoors and hanging out with friends, but I wanted to be exposed to more diversity as well, and Cal Poly doesn’t really have that.”

San Luis Obispo’s caucasian population stands at 72.5 percent, according to City-data.com. CSU Mentor says Cal Poly’s undergraduate body was 62 percent white as of June 2013. Kenny counted this lack of diversity against Cal Poly and its location, she said.

However, Schaper said most college applicants typically do not consider the issue of diversity until they have already become familiar with their chosen universities.

“I think it is just assumed diversity will be part of the mix,” Schaper said. “But it isn’t given much weight in selection.”

Academic prestige takes precedent over diversity by a long shot, she said.

Academic profile

Maraviglia said most prospective college students evaluate a university’s academic reputation by its profile, which displays the average GPA and test scores of enrolled students.

“As the overall GPA and test scores rise, that gives (Cal Poly) a stronger profile at entry,” Maraviglia said. “That’s looked at in the U.S. News ratings and other ratings services, so as that improves, the reputation improves.”

Cal Poly’s academic profile is similar to that of the top universities in the state, he said.

For example, COLLEGEdata shows that Cal Poly freshmen have an average GPA of 3.87, and the middle 50 percent of SAT scores range 580-680 for math and 640-650 for critical reading. For UC Berkeley, enrolled freshmen have an average GPA of 3.84 and the middle 50 percent of SAT scores range 630-770 for math and 590-720 for critical reading.

“It’s earned,” Maraviglia said. “Admission is a privilege, not a right.”

Students who work hard enough in high school to gain admission to Cal Poly tend to continue the same level of work throughout their college careers, he said. This contributes to Cal Poly’s academic reputation beyond its profile.

“The rigor is definitely here,” he said.

This “rigor” spans all available majors, of which Cal Poly offers almost 70, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Available majors

Cal Poly’s array of majors fall into highly ranked academic programs, some of which are recognized on a national level.

Cal Poly’s undergraduate architecture program, for example, was ranked first on DesignIntelligence’s “Top 10 Undergraduate Programs” for architecture for 2014, up from fifth place in 2013.

Schaper said aspiring college students take careful note of each university’s variety of majors.

“The engineering, architecture and business programs are all highly ranked and each offers a broad spectrum of specialties, minors and concentrations,” she said. “Believe it or not, that has become increasingly important to kids.”

In addition, the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences offers majors which are popular to Cal Poly but not widely available at other universities, Schaper said.

Maraviglia said Cal Poly’s large pool of majors is unusual considering the university’s size and funding. In addition, each of Cal Poly’s colleges offers an equally strong set of majors, he said.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “Engineering, agriculture, science — those are high-demand programs. But the strengths of the liberal arts and the sciences are second to none.”

While Cal Poly’s academic programs are highly in demand, its athletics can be overlooked.

Athletics and school spirit

Mechanical engineering sophomore Isaias Diaz is on Cal Poly’s wrestling team. He chose Cal Poly because he wanted to wrestle in a Division I program, but he feels the university’s athletics should get more attention from students and administration, he said.

“Besides soccer or football, other teams don’t really get as much attention,” Diaz said. “The track doesn’t have any bleachers. People have to stand on the grass. For wrestling, we don’t get that much attendance.”

Diaz said if Cal Poly put more energy into advertising its sporting events, it would help increase attendance and, in turn, boost school pride.

“Students are more proud of their school if their basketball team is doing really good, or their football team,” Diaz said. “If you look at other big schools, like University of Southern California or Stanford, they’re big because of their teams.”

Cal Poly students seem apathetic toward the athletic programs, he said. This surfaced in an ASI poll asking students for their opinion on renovating Mott Gym to Division I standards. Most students voted against it, Diaz said.

While Cal Poly’s focus on academics over athletics is a generally positive thing, the university should try to find a better balance, he said.

“The new science building is a benefit toward all students at Cal Poly,” he said. “But it would be nice to direct some of that funding toward better-maintained athletic facilities, either by renovating or reconstructing Mott Gym. Our academic facilities are definitely world-class, but our athletic facilities are on the level of most high schools.”

But Maraviglia said school spirit can be found in areas other than athletics.

“School spirit is not necessarily driven by athletics here,” he said. “It’s commitment to their schools and commitment to their colleges.”

With the focus on academics, the athletic program does not usually rake in the crowds or the profits, he said. However, while Cal Poly athletics might not make it on TV, they do act as an asset to the school.

“Are we going to have 100,000 people in the stadium? Probably not,” Maraviglia said. “But I think athletics plays a very strong supporting role here on how to do things right. So we’re not making a ton of money on athletics here.”

Cal Poly’s athletic program invests not in athletes, but in student-athletes, he said.

“The last thing I want to see is someone come here and be used for a sport and be out on the street with nothing to show for it,” Maraviglia said. “I want to see people in careers and professions.”

Post-graduate careers happen to be Cal Poly’s specialty, selling many prospective students on its quality of education.

Career and graduate school placement

Director of Career Services Martin Shibata said Cal Poly excels in getting its students to the right places after graduation, which is the purpose of an undergraduate education.

“When you ask 10 parents or 10 students what the ultimate goal of going to college is, they say getting a job or going on to graduate or professional school,” Shibata said. “It’s not just getting a degree. It’s about getting a job that’s meaningful.”

Cal Poly stands out to prospective students in the aspect of career placement because it is one of only a handful of schools to keep track of such statistics, he said.

“Very few colleges even do a placement report where they survey their graduates,” Shibata said. “Cal Poly does it because we feel it’s important for students to understand that.”

Sixty-six percent of 2012’s graduating class is now employed full time, Shibata said. Of these students, 66 percent had their jobs upon graduation and 28 percent found their jobs within three months of graduating.

Cal Poly is successful in placing students in careers because of its “Learn By Doing” philosophy, he said.

“Our students are prepared to hit the road running,” Shibata said. “They have a lot of classes and team projects that are project-based that help them be successful.”

Another reason for its success is that once employers start working with Cal Poly students, they often hire them exclusively, he said.

“When you come to a school and you’ve been real successful with the quality of their graduates, you better believe they’re going to come back for more,” Shibata said. “If they’ve had success at this university, why would they waste their time looking at other schools?”

Schaper said she has met several business owners who cannot get enough of Cal Poly graduates.

“I have had many parents who mentioned that in their own businesses, they prefer to hire Cal Poly grads over those of any other school,” she said. “That is about more than just something that happens in the career center.”

Business owners’ preference of Cal Poly graduates speaks to their experiential learning, career-specific areas of study, internship programs and close relationships with faculty due to manageable class sizes, Schaper said.

Class size

Close student-faculty relationships at Cal Poly stem from its ability to maintain relatively small class sizes — an average of 29 students per class, according to CSU Mentor — despite its ever-growing student body.

Flor said Cal Poly’s class sizes had an advantage over those of UCs while she was deciding between colleges.

“I’m more of a person who likes to talk with the professors,” she said. “That’s why the UCs weren’t such a high interest factor to me. I actually wanted to have one-on-ones with my professors.”

Now that Flor is at Cal Poly, she has gleaned career guidance from knowing her professors personally.

“Career-wise, professors are really kind at guiding you and giving you tips,” she said.

Maraviglia said the small class sizes are unique considering the university’s overall size.

“It’s remarkable that an institution like Cal Poly can maintain a sense of a private-school atmosphere with small classes,” he said. “I think that’s a strength.”

Student-faculty relationships make Cal Poly stand out against its UC competitors, he said.

“My daughter at UCLA never saw a faculty member until she was a junior,” Maraviglia said. “It was always teaching assistants. But this faculty commits to students, not only in the classroom, but outside.”

Cal Poly faculty members put in outstanding effort for the sake of their students, he said.

“Over the years, their commitment has continued to grow and grow while other places’ commitment has shrunk because of lack of resources,” Maraviglia said. “The faculty here has never given up on its commitment to students.”

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