UC Merced finally gets some respect in rankings of nation's best colleges

The University of California’s youngest, smallest and least-prestigious campus finally got some big-time respect, when a closely watched list of the nation’s best universities included UC Merced for the first time.

Long considered the campus of last resort for UC-bound students, UC Merced ranked 152nd among 298 national universities reviewed by U.S. News & World Report. All of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses made the list, topped by UC Berkeley as the nation’s best public university, followed by UCLA in second place.

UC Merced, opened to undergraduates in 2005 to expand educational and economic opportunities in the impoverished San Joaquin Valley, was particularly noted for its graduation rates and alumni giving.

Dorothy Leland, UC Merced’s chancellor, said she was thrilled by the recognition.

“This will really start changing the perception of the campus,” she said in an interview.

At first, people saw UC Merced as the last-resort spot offered to students who meet UC eligibility requirements but are rejected from their preferred campuses, and altering that view has been difficult, Leland said. Yet students from that “referral pool” have steadily declined from 28% in 2005 to about 6% this fall, university data show.

UC Merced educates the highest proportion of undergraduate students who are underrepresented minorities (54%), low income (61%) and the first in their families to attend college (67%) among all 10 campuses in the UC system, according to fall 2015 data. California residents made up 99.6% of the 6,237 undergraduates, including 27% from Los Angeles County.

The campus significantly outperformed expectations, posting a 66% graduation rate in 2015 over the 52% predicted using the magazine’s methodology. The review considered factors including assessments by peers and high school counselors, graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, class sizes, acceptance rates, standardized test scores and alumni giving. 

Although most UC Merced alumni are still in their 20s, 11% of them contributed to their alma mater — outstripping the giving rate of all other UC campuses except UC Santa Barbara (16%) and UC Berkeley (12%). UCLA's rate was 8%, and UC Riverside, the most comparable campus, was 4%.

In terms of graduation-rate improvement, Leland cited strong programs to help struggling students, including one led by peers who in their first year experienced difficulties and learned how to overcome them.

Campus momentum will accelerate next month when UC Merced breaks ground on a $1.14-billion project to almost double its physical capacity with state-of-the-art facilities for nearly 4,000 more students by 2020.

In rankings of the nation’s best public universities, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC Davis and UC San Diego all placed in the top 10.

But a bit of bad news for the Bruins: UCLA slipped one notch to 24th in overall rankings of public and private universities, falling one behind rival USC.

Princeton University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, Yale University, Columbia University, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University were named the top 10 national universities. 

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