California focus: Whose university will UC be?

By Thomas D. Elias

As springtime admission and rejection letters went out from the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California, the squeeze on this state’s most promising high school graduates became tighter than ever before.

That made it fair for many of those rejected to wonder just whose UC this great public university will eventually become.

Will it continue to be the fundamental goal and reward for the state’s high schoolers, motivating them to achieve and attempt ever more difficult challenges?

Or will it become another playground for wealthy out-of-state and foreign students who can afford the almost $23,000 extra per year in tuition paid by non-California residents?

So far, that extra money – the difference between $13,200 in-state tuition this year and $36,078 for all others – has proved no hindrance to foreigners. One reason: Governments of China and some Arab countries pay all tuition and expenses for many of their citizens who study at American universities.

Altogether, 13 percent of all UC undergraduates next fall will be from out of state, split just about evenly between foreign students and those from the other 49 states. That’s up from 12 percent this year and just 5 percent as recently as 2010.

There is clearly a connection between that fast-growing out-of-state student-body element and the decline in state budget support for UC over the last 10 years.

UC officials maintain the out-of-staters displace no Californians in either the top 9 percent of their high school class or the top 9 percent statewide. Of course, UC used to accept the top 12 percent statewide, so, there has unquestionably been some displacement.

Plus, the out-of-state proportion is higher at the most desired UC campuses – Berkeley and UCLA – compared with lower-demand locations like Merced and Riverside. Which suggests that in academia, money talks, especially the more than $120 million in extra yearly tuition to be paid by new out-of-state students. Add in returning students and those in graduate and professional schools, and UC now gets nearly $1 billion more each year from out-of-staters than if the same slots went to Californians.

But California taxpayers built those nine campuses principally for the benefit of their children. It’s one thing to argue that a sprinkling of students from other places serves a sound academic purpose, but when do financial motives trump academic benefit?

The demographics of UC are also changing fast, with Latinos now the largest ethnic group and Asian-Americans a fast-growing minority. For the first time this year, UC took more Latino students (29 percent) than Anglos (about 27 percent), while high-achieving Asian-Americans made up the plurality of admissions among in-state students, at 36 percent.

It’s one thing for changes to occur because the state itself is different from before. But for UC to display the obvious financial motives it has in recent admissions is both unseemly and wrong. Far better to accept at least the top 10 percent of California high schoolers than to take foreign students just for their money, even if that means state government will have to pony up a bit more support.