One word, uttered under breath by a California lawmaker, captured a sentiment, at times boiling over into anger, among legislators struggling to get more California students into the University of California.
What Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, found frustrating last week was the UC’s seeming refusal to adopt the same systemwide guaranteed admissions policy for transfer students that the California State University has. But it was one of several expressions of legislative aggravation over the UC’s — and to a lesser degree, the Cal State’s — struggles to educate more Californians during an Assembly budget subcommittee on education hearing.
There’s an emotional and fiscal component to lawmakers’ disappointment. As chairperson of the subcommittee, McCarty frequently references parents telling him about their children who graduate high school with GPAs above 4.0 but aren’t accepted to a UC of their choice. To try to get more Californians into the vaunted public university system, the Legislature has recently given or promised the UC:
From all that, the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated UC should enroll the equivalent of 203,500 California students in 2023-24. But UC’s projections show it’ll only educate 199,800 — about 4,000 short.
And for 2022-23, the UC estimates it’ll enroll the equivalent of about 300 fewer California residents than it did in 2021-22.
Now, lawmakers are asking why the UC can publish press releases about the large volume of students who apply each year and yet cannot find enough slots for all those applicants — especially at the most selective campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA.
“You just sound out of touch with, you know, the dreams and aspirations of kids who are trying to go to a dream school,” said Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance, to the UC official taking the heat at Tuesday’s hearing, Seija Virtanen, associate director of state budget relations.
The UC wants to enroll more students — and technically has. Complicating the debate over enrollment is that the state’s funding formula looks at full-time equivalent California residents. That’s different from what the lay person thinks of enrollment: headcount, or the actual number of people taking classes. The UC’s headcount of California undergraduates grew this year, but because those students are taking slightly fewer class units per term, the full-time equivalent enrollment dropped.
UC has a plan it shared with the committee: encourage more students to take summer school and add more than 4,000 new full-time equivalent California undergraduates a year through 2026-27. That would add 17,300 full-time equivalent California undergrads, about 4,000 more than what lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom wanted from UC.
The analyst’s office recommended that the 2023-24 state budget — due in late June — cut between roughly $9 million and $60 million from UC for projecting it’ll miss its enrollment targets this year and next. Lawmakers Tuesday didn’t seem ready to do so, but they put the UC on notice.
“We would be super, super disappointed…if we came back a year from now, and we had the same (problem),” said McCarty. “And then at the same time, tens of thousands of Californians from all of our districts with 4.3 GPAs didn’t get into the UC, even though their parents pay taxes.”
That the UC and California State University — which expects to be about 5.6 percent short of its state enrollment target this year, better than the 7 percent deficit it projected in January — are struggling to add more students is an inversion of recent trends.
For the past few years, both systems enrolled more Californians than what the state paid them to educate. Now, it’s lawmakers putting pressure on the state public universities to use the extra money they’ve already gotten.
McCarty’s message to the UC and Cal State was to grow as much as they can and trust that the state would reimburse the universities for exceeding their enrollment targets.
UC’s Virtanen asked for that assurance in legislative writing.
“Campuses would feel far more comfortable making some additional offers of admittance knowing that if they’re over by 50 or 100 students, they would get those funds the next year, and we wouldn’t start building up unfunded enrollment,” she told the subcommittee. The state pays the UC about $10,900 for every California undergraduate it enrolls.
Adding to the enrollment uncertainty at both the UC and Cal State is the hemorrhaging of students at California’s community colleges, whose transfer students make up a large portion of undergraduates at the public universities. Though community college enrollment inched up this fall, it’s still down 280,000 students compared to fall 2019 — a collapse blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the March 28 hearing, the UC debuted what it thought could be a solution: A senior UC official outlined a plan to guarantee admissions to California community college students who complete the right set of courses and meet GPA requirements.
It’s the first time the UC proposed a systemwide admissions guarantee; now such guarantees exist campus by campus and only at six UCs. Under the UC guaranteed admissions proposal, if a student isn’t admitted to a campus of their choice, they would be redirected to UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside or UC Merced.
But McCarty was unimpressed, faulting the plan because it wasn’t identical to the transfer admissions guarantee at Cal State. Lawmakers and advocates have been urging all three public higher-education systems to create a single set of requirements across academic majors, such as an associate degree that guarantees admission, so that community college students could enter either a UC or Cal State.
“We should be using proven pathways rather than adding new pathways and creating additional confusion for students,” said Molly Maguire, a policy director for the advocacy and research group Campaign for College Opportunity, during public comment at Tuesday’s hearing.