Even if the state Legislature provides money for additional enrollment, the University of California system probably will be able to add only a few hundred extra students this fall, UC President Janet Napolitano said Friday.
"We'd like to add 10,000 more" to the systemwide enrollment of 180,000, Napolitano said in an interview with reporters and editors in The Times' Washington bureau. Legislative leaders are debating how much money to add to the state budget to expand UC enrollment, but are unlikely to go that far, she added, saying: "They may go halfway."
Even if the Legislature approves a significant increase, the full effect would not be felt until the class that enters college in the fall of 2016, Napolitano said. "We're late in the process" to be adding students this year, she said, noting that California's budget schedule and the university's application cycle don't mesh well.
"Realistically, for this fall," the UC system would be able to add 500 to 600 students, who would be taken off campus wait lists, she said.
Napolitano reached an agreement last month with Gov. Jerry Brown to increase state aid to the university system in return for UC's promise to freeze in-state tuition for two years. As part of that agreement, the issue of how much to expand enrollment was left to the Legislature.
One goal of an expansion would be to keep up with the rapid growth of the state's Latino population, Napolitano said. Latinos are the second-largest ethnic group in the system, but their share of the student population lags behind the growing number of university-eligible Latino high school students.
"The numbers aren't where we'd want them to be, but they're growing," she said.
The situation is worse with African American students, whose numbers have been stuck at roughly 3% of the student population for years.
"We're doing a lot" to try to identify promising African American high school students, make sure they are taking the proper courses to meet UC entrance requirements and encourage them to apply, Napolitano said.
"We're the public university of California; we're paid for by all the public," she said. While university enrollment needn't be strictly proportional to the state's population, it should reflect California's diversity, she said.
But Napolitano said that the system faces several hurdles in enrolling African American students. She cited competition from private colleges for the best high school graduates and a worry — unjustified, she insisted — that some potential applicants have about feeling isolated on campuses with small African American enrollments.
Nationally, the number of black students attending college has stopped growing and may even be declining in some areas, Napolitano said, adding "that trend line should bother all of us."
Across the country, public universities have felt the impact of years of cuts in state assistance, which has led to greater burdens on students and their families.
"It's not that the cost of higher education has gone up" at public universities, she said. "It's that the public share of that cost has gone down."
The result has been a big increase in tuition and student debt and public universities that increasingly have been operating more like private colleges, seeking funds from alumni and other sources.
The debt burden for most UC undergraduates has remained affordable, she said, noting that nearly half graduate debt free and the other half have debts that average $20,000.
The university is "very aware" of the need to ensure that students don't leave school with "hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt," she said, noting that "$20,000 is the cost of a car," but a college education "doesn't depreciate the moment you drive it off the lot."
With an economy that increasingly demands high skills, "it's obvious that we need education beyond high school" to remain accessible to students, she said.
"The federal government can and should do more" to help students afford college, she added. "It's a matter of priorities."