Exactly what California needs: A new, science-focused UC school

California has faced crises before while opening new UC campuses; it can do so again

Thousands of applicants with high school grade-point averages above 4.0 are rejected from UC Berkeley and UCLA each year through no fault of their own. It's a hard thing for parents to explain to their kids, who did everything they were supposed to do and yet were turned away thanks to the lack of space in California's top public universities. Many students end up paying more to attend comparably ranked private or out-of-state schools. This exodus of motivated, intelligent students -- many of whom settle out of state -- isn't good for California in the long run. 

Schools like UCLA provide an elite education, but students there encounter a system at maximum capacity. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Westwood is just shy of $2,500 a month. Many classes are held in vast lecture halls with little interaction with the professor. Even a top-notch university like UCLA can't bring upward of 43,000 humans through its doors without certain systemic challenges.  

Meanwhile, in politics, a divisive debate about affirmative action rages on, with students of all colors believing that qualified members of their group are not getting into our flagship state universities.

Despite these facts, The Times' Karin Klein wrote an Opinion L.A. blog post on March 4 that disagreed sharply with my capacity-increasing proposal, Assembly Bill 1483, to build a new University of California campus focusing on the STEAM subjects (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). Not only would operating a new campus be cost prohibitive, Klein wrote, but the shortage of graduates in science, engineering and math may be a myth foisted on the public by CEOs who just "want to train people in these fields." She suggested I have too much time on my hands.

California's educational superiority has depended on the political courage of visionaries. Between 1954 and 1965, California wrestled with many of the same weighty issues we face today. There were state budgetary crises. There were divisive issues to address, among them segregated housing. Some worried that California had no capacity for growth left. Yet, during those 11 years, four new UC campuses opened. Somehow, policymakers found the funds necessary to plan for the long-term higher-education needs of the state.  They did so by recognizing that demographic realities necessitated additional higher-education infrastructure, if California was to continue to have an educated population and a high standard of living.

Moreover, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, using 2012 as a baseline, the U.S. will need 27% more biomedical engineers, 37% more information-security analysts and 39% more cardiovascular technicians and other medical sonographers by 2022. The average computer programmer in California makes $89,450 per year. The average animator makes $88,140.  And yes, those who program video games, make movies and render three-dimensional engineering models do need creative skills, hence the inclusion of the arts in my proposal, which Klein derides.

Yes, the UC system faces funding and operational issues now, but that shouldn't stop us from considering how the system should be configured to serve our population a generation from now. Let's not forget that in 2050 California is expected to have almost 50 million residents, or 13.6 million more than in 2005, when the last UC was opened. If taking on an issue of this magnitude and importance means that I have "too much time on my hands," as Klein wrote, then so be it. But it's a surprising critique coming from a member of an editorial board that, refreshingly, usually rebukes policymakers for failing to wrestle with the big issues.

Many of the problems within the UC system can be solved with increased capacity. And it only makes sense to create that capacity in the practical subject areas that generate the best-paying jobs. We need to solve the immediate challenges, but there is no reason we can't prioritize higher education this fiscal year while thinking about the future needs of the system too.

Mike Gatto, a Democrat, represents the 43rd District in the California Assembly.

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