The University of California System is Not a System at All
This week I have read a story that the University of California system has supposedly relaxed admissions standards for non-residents who wanted to attend its member schools.
While you might not read such a story about university systems in states such as Delaware, Michigan, Vermont and Virginia that have historically admitted large numbers from other states, this is front-page news in California.
Historically, the University of California schools took less than five percent of the incoming freshman classes from other countries and states. Today, as two examples, non-residents make up 29 percent of the undergraduate student body at the University of California-Berkeley and 22 percent of the undergraduate student body at UCLA. The larger share of non-residents are international students.
The University of California schools that tend to appear in rankings (Berkeley, UCLA, Davis, Irvine, San Diego and Santa Barbara) are all exceptionally difficult places to gain admission. The other three campuses: Santa Cruz, Riverside and Merced, the newest campus, are not. The university system charges the same, around $14,000 in tuition and fees, regardless of the school, and offers relatively generous need-based financial aid to qualified California residents through the Blue and Gold Plan. Yet students do not receive access to the same services on every campus.
I agree in one way with this story, disagree in others. California is the land of fruit and nuts when it comes to funding operating aid to higher education. Major tax increases, if they happen, are approved by public referendum, not solely by the state legislature. As a result, the Golden State has fiscally starved its university system. So non-residents help to fund the costs of education for residents. That’s not difficult to do at UC-Berkeley or UCLA. There are plenty of non-residents who are willing to pay the full freight to come. That’s probably true at Davis, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Santa Barbara, all high-ranked schools with residential campuses, provided the academic fit is there. It’s not so true at Riverside and Merced.
The University of California system has made two more serious mistakes that would be very expensive to undo.
The first was to put the alumni community of each campus on an island. When you go to Penn State you are considered an alumnus no matter which campus you were educated. You have access to the same resources for alumni relations and career development. Penn State benefits from this. About a fifth of Penn State alumni contribute to their alma mater. That’s what makes a university system stronger. It has a large community to draw support.
This is not so with the University of California. UC-Berkeley alumni are not the “equal” of alumni at Riverside or Merced, or any other system school, and vice versa. That has to make fundraising a challenge at the highest levels of the university system. Not to mention that the alumni communities do not have access to the same resources. The highest levels of the system have not helped to ensure equal access to them. That’s a major failure on their part.
The second problem is brand building. If you believe that you have a great university system, the leadership at the highest levels has to make sure that every school is great. There has to be advantages to choosing each school, besides proximity to home. The University of California campuses that appear high in rankings are the stronger brands, namely Berkeley, UCLA, Davis and Santa Barbara, all of which were founded before 1960. They have longer histories. They have had more time to raise money. The system has not tried hard enough to prop the weaker brands, for example, to give someone a reason to consider Santa Cruz more seriously when compared to UC-Berkeley or UCLA. That takes marketing first, money second, going back to the paragraph above.
I understand the rationale that the University of California schools should primarily educate undergraduates from California. But the structure of the university system as well as the politics of the state make that exceptionally difficult. The flagship campuses targeted non residents aggressively to do what the system has failed to do: raise the funding to build strong brands everywhere under one banner for alumni.