What is the UC system worth?


In both of the two most respected global rankings of universities, the University of California system supplies at least 10% of the top 50 institutions worldwide. In the Academic Ranking of World Universities put out by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (usually referred to as the Shanghai index), seven of the UC’s 10 campuses rank in the top 50. In Britain’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the UC system has five campuses in the top 50 with a sixth four notches lower. This is an extraordinary achievement for a publicly financed system of higher education, particularly for one that was founded just a century ago.

If we add in the three private California universities (Caltech, USC and Stanford) also in the Shanghai top 50, California is arguably the heaviest-hitting state in any league of higher education. To find something comparable, you would have to aggregate the combined performance of the entire Northeastern United States. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York together have produced precisely as many Shanghai top 50 institutions as California. And they have done so with the head start of an extra century or more of development, with the resources of a combined population base close to twice California’s and, of course, with vast amounts of private-pocket financing.

The combined endowments of the 10 top-50 institutions on the East Coast top $80 billion. The West Coast’s 10 top-ranked universities have a combined endowment of just over $21 billion, or about one-fourth of what their East Coast counterparts have amassed. Moreover, Stanford alone accounts for more than half of the endowment money held by the West Coast’s top universities.


In other words, in terms of bang for the buck, the efficiency of California’s university performance is staggering. Only a few state institutions in the Northeastern United States make it into the Shanghai top 50. All the others are plushly upholstered private institutions.

The only competition to California’s performance comes from Maryland or perhaps plucky Illinois. Maryland boasts two top-50 Shanghai institutions. Beleaguered by even more hard-pressed state finances than our own, Illinois fields three top-50 institutions in both rankings. If California fields one premier university for every 3.7 million inhabitants, Maryland outcompetes us (one for each 2.85 million), while Illinois gives us a run for the money (one per 4.2 million). Among the states of the Northeast listed above, there is one first-class university for every 5.6 million people.

Looking abroad for our peers, the closest competition comes from Britain, but it is a fairly distant second. The British have but five ranking institutions, produced from a population that is well over 50% larger than California’s. Were California an independent country, the only nation that would outrank it in the number of its premier universities would be the rest of the United States.

In California, our universities are a point of pride. But perhaps we do not recognize just how remarkable they actually are. California’s private institutions are doubtless praiseworthy too. But without the extraordinary accomplishments of the UC system, they would not be part of what is an unprecedented achievement. Today we face the prospect of cutting into the muscle and bone of this venerable institution and hobbling a remarkable creature that has taken half a century of care, investment and tending to bring to magnificence. It is worth taking a moment to ask ourselves how much the imperatives of the current budget shortfall justify cutting back one of the true splendors of Californian civilization.

Peter Baldwin is professor of history at UCLA. His most recent book is “The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike.”