The University of California cannot afford to be quite the institution it has been for decades: the provider of an easily affordable yet world-class higher education for California's top high school graduates. Tuition is rising frighteningly fast, possibly to more than $12,000, compared with about $8,000 just three years ago. And now even the "California" part has been somewhat diminished as the university system offers spots to more nonresidents in order to receive the extra tuition money they pay.
The changes, painful as they are, are justifiable ways to cope with reduced funding while preserving UC's reputation. Tuition increases and enrollment patterns can be easily reversed, at least theoretically, when the economy improves, but it would take decades to rebuild a respected name and illustrious faculty once those were gone.
UC enrollment officials say that the big increase in nonresident undergraduates — who will make up 12.3% of this fall's freshman enrollment, compared with 8% last year — does not affect California students because UC accepted just as many of them as last year. That's true overall, but there's more at stake than overall admissions numbers. At UC Berkeley, which is well known outside the state and around the world, almost a third of the new freshmen will be from out of state. Meanwhile, the number of California students admitted to the Berkeley freshman class for this fall has decreased by close to 1,900 compared with two years ago, while the number of out-of-state and foreign students has increased by about 2,500. In other words, significantly fewer California students can find a place at one of UC's most popular campuses.
That may be unavoidable for now, but it's not something to be happy about or to allow permanently. UC officials must take steps to guard against two possible downsides to this admissions shift.
As an advisory panel recommended, the university must not accept out-of-state and foreign students who do not meet high admissions criteria. The extra money might be tempting, but lower standards would reduce UC's reputation, the very thing it is trying to prevent by enrolling nonresidents.
Even worse would be for this temporary admissions change to open the door to a permanent policy under which UC's undergraduate programs are no longer primarily for California students. UC leaders should publicly commit to reversing course once the state's budget picture improves to certain, predefined levels. A chief reason California taxpayers commit so much money to the university is so that it will fulfill its lofty mission of providing bachelor's degrees to this state's outstanding young scholars.