Essay on the death of the promise of the University of California
The Disappearing California Dream
My earliest memories are of looking out from the campanile at the University of California at Berkeley below and the blue sky that surrounded the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Sproul Plaza and bongo drums, Telegraph Avenue and the Hare Krishna, Cody’s Books, Kip’s and Top Dog. These early memories were the result of the dreams and aspirations my parents had at the time.
Cal Berkeley had been the beacon of higher education that first brought my parents to this country in the early 1960s. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers had been unable to obtain college educations in Mexico, in part because of tradition and also due to the limitations at the time. But both of them were self-taught and made sure that their children attended local universities. My father had older siblings who had completed college by the time he came to the United States. My mother was the first to attend college in her family.
Back then the California dream came in three parts. We had the community colleges that served as the entryway for those who were not ready for a four-year university. There was the Cal State system that served as primarily master’s-level and undergraduate teaching institutions. Then there was the University of California.
Shortly after my parents arrived in California, they enrolled at the local community college. From there they transferred to Berkeley and eventually went on to obtain graduate degrees. My mother received her M.A. in comparative literature and my father eventually received a Ph.D. in the same field.
When the time to apply for college came, I had only two places in mind: Cal and Harvard. I heard early from Cal and was rejected from Harvard. So my choice was clear. In my mind, Cal was the place for me. It was home. But Cal was tough. I remember sitting in my Intro to Chem class with the other 750 students as we watched our professor on TVs that stood above us. Even though the classes were huge, faculty always taught them. And as we moved into upper-division courses these classes grew smaller and smaller to the point of eventually being able to ask our professors questions in groups as small as 50.
My wife, who was the first to go to college in her family, had followed a track to the one my parents used. She heard of college for the first time when she was in high school. When she finished high school, she enrolled at a local community college and transferred to UC Santa Cruz. Eventually, she ended up earning an M.A. in counseling psychology.
My daughter’s experience extended our UC experience even further. She was born in La Jolla just before I defended my Ph.D. dissertation at UC San Diego. Her earliest memories are of UC Santa Barbara, where I had my first job and she used to play with chickens at the Orfalea Children’s Center. She had visited Cal with us numerous times and ventured just south to the forest that surrounded UC Santa Cruz, my wife’s alma mater. Her early memories had spread beyond the campanile to encompass many more campuses.
When we first moved to Houston 10 years ago, the UC system was still embedded into the household fabric. One day my daughter came home and asked me whether we were Aggies or Longhorns. I quickly replied that we were Golden Bears and Banana Slugs. The next day she came back unsatisfied with my answer and asked again. It was a forced-choice question and so I chose Longhorns. UT was the Cal of Texas so it made sense.
But things have changed in the 30 or so years since my wife and I applied to college. My daughter received hundreds of brochures and emails from universities across the country, some of which I never knew existed. The list under consideration expanded to 11, including UT Austin and the University of Houston, but also some private and some Ivy League institutions.
Decision day arrived in three waves. First came UT and Houston, which were automatic due purely to her class rank. Then there was UCLA, a place made dear to my heart much later in life, when my father Guillermo Hernandez became a professor there. The final wave brought us good news: acceptance into Duke University, Davidson College and the University of Pennsylvania. All were excellent institutions with great reputations. But it also brought bad news: rejection from Cal.
My daughter and I visited all of the east coast schools where she had been accepted. Penn reminded me of home. It shared a strong commitment to diversity. Like Cal, it sat on the edge of a city with the inner city not far away. It even carries the name of the state and can be named with a single syllable. And like Cal, the multicultural way of life I had experienced during my childhood in California had penetrated its Ivy walls. You can eat Tortas at Penn and any other type of ethnic food you can dream up. But it is still private. Classes are smaller. The surroundings are beautiful and there is Ben sitting on campus. It was clear to me that her experiences would be radically different than the ones my parents, my wife and I had experienced in college.
My daughter’s decision came swiftly. She left the Golden Bears and Banana Slugs behind. She bypassed the Longhorns and Cougars completely. She has taken her experience of living in the most diverse city of the country with her. Along the way she will create a new identity, a native Californian Latina from Houston who will soon be a Penn student, something I never imagined was possible from the top of the campanile all those years ago.
But what of my California dream that had given all of us this opportunity? Is it dead? Over 70,000 applied to Cal and over 85,000 applied to UCLA this year. The acceptance rate has dropped at both places. The campuses are packed and more and more Californians are leaving the golden state to attend college in other places. This trend has reverberated across the entire county a topic of concern that the dean of admissions at Penn, Eric J. Furda, discussed with me during Quaker days.
The irony of it all was that my entire family was educated at what is arguably the best public university system in the world. My daughter could have followed in our footsteps. She was offered admission to UCLA but no financial aid. In other words, the entire out-of-state cost approximating that of private colleges was to be handled by us. A similar situation occurred at UT. Because Ivy League universities award grants and have a no-loans policy, Penn ended up costing a bit more than UT and much less than UCLA.
The story of our family is not unique. According to a recent book from Suzanne Mettler at Cornell University, college education may actually be reducing the opportunity to create a more level playing field. The ability both economically and socially to climb the academic ladder is becoming more and more restricted. This reality is difficult to reconcile for someone who grew up in the public university system and teaches at one as well. The American higher educational system has opened up doors for my family. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a daughter who will attend an Ivy League university.
However, I cannot help but wonder what the future of public university education holds for those who aspire to climb the academic ladder the way that my family has.
Arturo E. Hernandez is professor of psychology and director of the developmental cognitive neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston.