The New Normal at Berkeley

Governor Jerry Brown, a Cal alum, says "normal" students can't get into the university anymore. Why? Some blame Brown's budgets.

January 23, 2015
California Governor Jerry Brown

California Governor Jerry Brown this week said the state’s flagship -- the University of California at Berkeley -- has closed its doors to “normal” people.

The remark, one of Brown’s characteristically blunt assertions, taps into years of concern that the state’s most prestigious universities are increasingly out of reach for many Californians.

Brown said that back in his day (he entered Berkeley in 1960) he and his two sisters could get into the University of California at Berkeley without much worry. So could his nieces and grand-nieces. But things have changed at Berkeley, he said.

“It just feels that whatever used to belong to the normal people of California – assuming the Brown extended family is normal – it’s not available anymore,” Brown said during a Board of Regents meeting this week. “And so you got your foreign students and you got your 4.0 folks, but just the kind of ordinary, normal students, you know, that got good grades but weren’t at the top of the heap there – they’re getting frozen out.” (It might not be fair to deem the Brown family “normal.” Jerry Brown's father, Pat, was governor the year Jerry enrolled at Berkeley. And after Jerry Brown graduated, he attended Yale Law School.) 

Brown said his offhand remarks were "purely anecdotal," but those anecdotes shape how he feels about the UC system. 

“When UC campuses like Berkeley started to be particularly selective and hard to get into, campus officials worried that a Stephen Bechtel or a Earl Warren (both not stellar high school students) never would have gotten in,” said John Aubrey Douglass, a senior research fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. Bechtel went on to found the construction and engineering company that bears his name, and Warren was California governor and U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Brown seemed to blame the university, but others blame Brown himself, as well as the politicians who preceded him. They say his fiscal conservatism – tuition freezes for students and tight appropriations for colleges – have given the university little room to grow. The university, in turn, has taken to enrolling profitable out-of-state and international students, who pay about $23,000 more per year than Californians.

Douglass said while it’s not the role of politicians to make admissions decisions, Berkeley could do more to admit students without impeccable grades or test scores. In recent years, most Berkeley freshmen had a high school grade-point average of 4.0 or higher.

When so many highly qualified students are trying to get in – many of whom easily surpass the basic admission requirements for the university – "admissions policies have arbitrary outcomes," Douglass argues. So why not admit students using considerations beyond just grades and test scores? Fewer than 1 percent of recent admits had below a 3.0 GPA.

“They still use special action,” he said, “but it has sort of fallen off the menu cart.”

Berkeley admits a huge number of low-income students -- 43 percent of its in-state undergraduates received the federal Pell Grant, which goes to students with very low family incomes.

Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said Berkeley is academically rigorous and looks for prepared students at every school in the state.

"We consider whether the student made the most of available opportunities as well as indications of qualities such as leadership and persistence," she said in an email. "Ultimately, we seek to enroll a strong class of scholars and leaders representing a cross-section of communities, incomes, backgrounds, interests and talents."

David Fajnor, a college counselor at Oakwood High School who was an admissions officer at the University of California at Santa Cruz for 28 years, said Brown’s view of the system is outdated.

In the five decades since Brown entered Berkeley, California K-12 education has improved, there are more Advanced Placement and honors classes, and the sheer number of people in the state and graduating from high school has jumped. Berkeley and others have not prepared, in part because of funding decisions made by the governor.

“We basically got to your economic supply and demand, there were more students better prepared and not an equally increasing number of spaces available,” Fajnor said.

As state funding failed to keep up with growth, he said, Berkeley and others began looking outside the state for students, which meant new spots were created – just not for Californians.

In 2014, about 1,800 students – a third of Berkeley’s first-year undergraduates – were from outside California. The same year, 44,564 Californians applied to Berkeley and 8,391 were admitted. Of those, about half ended up enrolling. The university also admits about 3,600 transfer students a year, 90 percent of whom are from California community colleges.

Jon Reider, the director of college counseling at the prestigious San Francisco University High School, said Berkeley faculty must be thrilled to have such talented students, but it’s harder for strong California students to get into the college.

“It wasn’t always thus; as recently as 10 years ago, it was noticeably harder for a kid from New York to get into Berkeley than a kid from California – it’s because of the budget,” Reider said.

Fajnor also said that competition for the prestige of going to Berkeley or the University of California at Los Angeles has undermined elements of the state’s famed master plan.

Under the plan, UCs had a research mission, other four-year colleges in the California State University system were meant to prepare students for professional life, and two-year community colleges were for technical training. Those distinctions have “grayed,” Fajnor said, because universities want to become more selective to move up in the rankings, while students want the cachet that comes with attending a more highly ranked college. 

“More families wrongly are trying to get their students into the University of California, thinking it’s better,” Fajnor said.

Unlike Douglass, Fajnor doesn’t think adding more special admits will get more so-called “normal” people into Berkeley.

“When Berkeley can figure out how to graduate an athlete they should be allowed to expand their special admit pool – or maybe even win a football game,” he said.

Caitlin Quinn, a Berkeley political science major who is also a vice president for the Associated Students of the University of California, said that as Berkeley grows more competitive, students don’t blame each other.

“The university tries to pit us against each other from admissions to introductory weeder classes to research opportunities – more funding from the state would mean more spots for everyone, more housing, more research, more great professors,” she wrote in an email.

Students learn from one other, Quinn said, so if the so-called normal students end up getting frozen out, it's a detriment to the students and the university. The state and the system share responsibility, she said.

Brown is pushing the UC system to become more efficient. This week, he and UC system President Janet Napolitano formed an unusual two-person committee to study the system’s finances. They have clashed over how to find more money for the system. Napolitano favors a major influx of state dollars, or several consecutive years of tuition hikes. Brown favors a tuition freeze, a modest increase in state appropriations and belt-tightening by the system.

During the regents' meeting this week, UC Regent Hadi Makarechian compared Brown’s plan for the system to only partially fueling up an airplane and then packing it full of passengers.

“You’re going to crash,” Makarechian said. “And you say, ‘I’m not going to give you any more fuel and I’m not going to give you any more pilots, and I’m not going to give raises to your pilots – but they have to go in and fly anyway.’ It’s not going to happen. Something has to give.”


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