CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Save Undergrads From the Maw of UC : Let the University of California do what it does best--research-- while our other schools take over more teaching.

<i> Richard Moore has been president of Santa Monica College for 17 years. </i>

The elitist era of higher education in California began in 1960 when Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California, crafted and sold to Californians a master plan for higher education. Over the past three decades, Kerr’s plan has worked well in providing California a first-rate public research university and quality professional schools. The master plan has also proved to be badly flawed in terms of organizing undergraduate instruction.

Kerr’s plan for undergraduate education specified that only high school seniors who graduate in the upper 12% of their class and complete a specified set of high school courses may attend the University of California. High school seniors who graduate in the upper one-third of their classes may attend a state college, now the California State University system. All others (high school graduates or anyone over the age of 18 “capable of profiting from the instruction”) would be allowed to attend the junior colleges, now called community colleges.

What theoretically saved Kerr’s elitist plan was the caveat that if a “UC-rejected” student enrolled in a community college and “repaired” any high school deficiencies and then completed 56 units of transferable college work in such required courses as calculus, foreign language, U.S. history, biology and English, with grades of Cs or higher, that student could then transfer to a state university; students who achieved better grades--the stipulated standard was a 2.4 grade-point average--could transfer to UC.


So, how have things evolved? Today, one of the proudest achievements of this state is the research record of the University of California. The state universities and community colleges also have emerged as strong and supportive partners. The problem rests with undergraduate instruction and the University of California.

UC, having accepted only the “brightest and best” high school graduates, organizes them into huge classes (200 to 1,500 students), sends in graduate assistants to teach and then graduates only 54% of these students five years later. Remember, these are California’s best high school graduates.

The university meanwhile uses general student funds to underwrite the university’s real priority, research. The UC system is well-rewarded for agreeing to instruct the best school achievers. UC schools steadfastly refuse to disclose the cost of educating their students, but state records indicate that they receive more than $11,000 per undergraduate and graduate student. In contrast, the community colleges are allocated $2,800 per student.

Interestingly, privately funded Stanford University does not favor research over undergraduates. It also admits exceptionally well-prepared undergraduates and then devotes enough faculty resources to working directly with students to ensure academic success and a high graduation rate: 89% of its freshmen graduate within five years. In contrast, publicly funded University of California graduates 54%. This dismissal of 40% or more of our state’s brightest students is not only an immense loss of human capital; it also attaches a tragic personal stigma to the thousands of “UC failures.”

The high school student who was initially denied admission to UC in most cases enrolls at the local community college and makes up missed high school work, then goes on to earn Bs and Cs in college-level foreign language, calculus and English. After years of this work, what occurs? The state university readily accepts community college transfer students, but the elite UCs severely restrict the number of transfers.

The University of California has recently raised the “acceptance” barrier for community college transfers to a grade-point average (GPA) of between 3.4 and 4.0, depending on the campus and major. This means that community college students must achieve, in effect, all A’s and maybe a few Bs to be considered by UC. How many college graduates can today boast of A’s earned in elective mathematics and French in order to be allowed junior standing at their college or university? As more community college students overcome the UC hurdles, UC raises the GPA barrier.


So, is this tragic? Yes, especially since the barriers have serious racial and social consequences. Three out of four African-American and Latino college students in this state are currently enrolled in community colleges. Equally significant, three out of four community college students also need to work either full- or part-time to attend college. The median income of families with students at UC is $51,000, whereas 27% of all community college students need financial assistance because their family incomes are below the poverty level. Meanwhile, the University of California caters to the wealthy by not scheduling enough required classes at night so that transfer community college students might earn a living in the daytime.

(This criticism does not come from the president of a college that does poorly in preparing transfer students to UC. Santa Monica College leads the state in the total number of students prepared and transfered to UC, including the largest number of African-American and Latino students.)

UC policy-makers have known of these problems for many years. The citizens of California have an important option to consider: Pass an initiative to limit UC undergraduate instruction to upper-division work and allow the UC schools to do what they like best--concentrate on upper-division work, graduate education and research. This would allow all California students, for their first two years of instruction, to attend either the state universities or the community colleges, with equal dollars behind each student.

The master plan for public undergraduate education was deliberately designed to be elitist, and the product of more than 30 years of elitism is tragic. We cannot afford a master plan that determines in the 12th grade a young person’s future. We cannot support a public university that jettisons the careers of many of our best academic achievers, while taking more than four times the amount of money that community colleges are allocated to assist the more poorly prepared students.

“Separate and unequal” is a principle that was rejected in public elementary education. It needs to be stopped in higher education.