Facing severe budget cuts from the state around 2010, University of California campuses started increasing their admission of out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition rates than do California residents. UC officials never made a secret of the strategy, and some even spoke of hoping parents of high school students would start lobbying for larger state appropriations. That didn't happen.
What did happen was a sudden spike in enrolling out-of-state undergraduates, even as demand increased for spots at the University of California -- and especially at the campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles and, to a slightly lesser degree, San Diego. There has been plenty of grumbling by applicants, parents and politicians. Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, complained that "normal" students can't get into Berkeley anymore.
The state auditor on Tuesday released a report that went well beyond complaints of rejected applicants. It accused the university system of admitting out-of-state applicants who didn't meet standards set by the state's Master Plan for Higher Education. And thousands of these non-Californians took the spots of more academically qualified Californians, the audit charged. This narrative counters the image that many admissions officials at popular flagships promote, which is that it is the out-of-staters who must meet higher standards.
The University of California responded with a report of its own -- disputing some of the auditor's findings and saying that those who couldn't find slots need to blame politicians for slashing higher education budgets, not the university.
An agreement between the university and Brown in October is expected to add thousands of slots for Californians in the system -- in return for more state funds. So there has already been some change from the period covered in the audit. But the underlying issues remain, and the report attracted considerable attention in the state and elsewhere on Tuesday. The audit report is the latest sign of backlash against many state policies that have relied on out-of-state tuition to replace state appropriations.
Here are some of the key findings in the auditor's report, which is focused on shifts from 2010-11 to 2014-15:
- Total out-of-state enrollment increased by 82 percent, while in-state enrollment decreased by 1 percent.
- The university made enrolling in its system "less appealing" for Californians by admitting them to a system campus, but not the one they wanted, while "never" denying nonresidents who were admitted the campus of their choice.
- Ignoring master-plan requirements that out-of-state applicants should only be accepted if they met or exceeded the median qualifications for residents, the university admitted nearly 16,000 nonresidents with lower academic qualifications than the median for residents it admitted.
- At the same time, from academic years 2005-06 through 2014-15, the university's campuses denied admission to nearly 4,300 residents whose academic scores met or exceeded all of the median scores for nonresidents whom the university admitted to the campus of their choice.
- Relatively few out-of-state applicants added racial or ethnic diversity to the state's colleges, with only 11 percent of out-of-state students admitted in 2014-15 coming from underrepresented minority groups. (In states less diverse than California, educators make the case that such students add diversity.)
The report from the university questions not only some of the numbers, but the assumption that out-of-state students take Californians' slots.
"Some in California have called for UC to limit the number of nonresident students it enrolls, thinking this would make room for more Californians or provide additional opportunity for more California students. This isn’t true," the report says. "The immediate impact of reducing the number of nonresidents at the university would be less funding for all UC students. Like other governmental agencies, UC’s state funding hasn't fully rebounded from the significant budget cuts of the recent recession and it is unlikely that the state will be positioned to replace the more than $800 million that nonresidents bring to the university each year. Absent additional state funding, the reduced revenues would lead to decreases in the quality of academic programs and services for all UC students or increases in tuition."
Some experts on California admissions said there are elements of truth in both the arguments of the auditor and the university.
Jon Reider of San Francisco University High School, which sends many highly prepared students to UC and elsewhere (and sees many rejected), said one major problem with public discussion is that there is a difference between Berkeley, UCLA and UCSD and the rest of the university system. Both the university and its critics use systemwide data when it suits their purposes, he said, but there is not "one system" in the way people talk.
He said that there is no question that at top UCs, admission has become much more difficult and many talented Californians are being turned away.
"All California counselors have noticed this. It is a fact of our lives," he said. "Parents and students groan, and we groan in sympathy, but our response is to be practical. We mention more frequently public flagships out of state -- Oregon, Colorado, et al. -- but the cost is greater there, too. There is remarkably little taxpayer rebellion, because the state Legislature has severely reduced funding from Sacramento, so the UC system has to go out of state for more tuition revenue."
Suzanne Dougherty is a California-based private counselor for college applicants and the author of The Complete Guide to University Of California Admissions.
She said many parents are angry at the University of California but that few realize just how hard it is to get in, especially to engineering or other specialized programs. Too many people, she said, look at the admissions process as a single process, and not "a larger door leading to smaller doors" that one needs to get through.
Dougherty said she believes the university "didn't have a choice" but to admit more out-of-state applicants, as a means of preserving quality when state dollars disappeared. Asked if her clients agree, she said, "Parents don't believe that."