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UC San Diego faces a pivot after being told to admit more California students

UC San Diego is expected to have about 40,000 students this fall.
(Gary Robbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune )

The possibility of another big wave of growth is causing its own set of problems.

A state lawmaker last week accused UC San Diego and its sister campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles of betraying Californians.

Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the UC system — and those three campuses in particular — “focused on admitting out-of-state students at the expense of in-state students. They deny that. But if you just look at the numbers, it’s pretty clear.”

Over the past decade, the La Jolla campus added 10,400 students, more than half of whom came from outside California, notably China.

Education experts say UCSD and other schools made the move to offset an erosion in state funding for the UC system. They had to try to pay bills and bankroll growth by greatly increasing the number of students admitted from other states and nations. Those students pay more than twice as much in tuition.

Pradeep Khosla, who has been UCSD’s chancellor since 2012, denied that California students were put at a disadvantage. “No out-of-state [student] ever, during my time here, displaced a Californian,” he said in an interview. “Not once.”

But facing mounting pressure from parents and students unable to secure UC berths, the Legislature adopted a budget June 28 that orders UCSD, UCLA and UC Berkeley to make a roughly 4 percent cut in the number of undergraduates who come from outside California. That will collectively free up 4,500 slots for California residents at those campuses over the next five years.

The state will pay $184 million to cover the higher tuition money that would have come from out-of-state students.

“We’re doing it in the fastest way possible, which is to buy out the out-of-state students and replace them with California students,” said Ting, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

State Assemblyman Phil Ting wants the UC system to enroll larger numbers of Californians.
State Assemblyman Phil Ting wants the UC system to enroll larger numbers of Californians.
(Rob Nikolewski)

The state is dealing with a big target.

At UCSD, international enrollment hit a record 8,451 in 2020 — or 21 percent of the student body. It’s the highest figure in the UC and one of the highest in the United States.

The figure will drop to at least 18 percent, and maybe 17 percent, under the new state budget.

Recruiting overseas, UC San Diego international students by top feeder countries in 2010 and 2020

UCSD has huge programs in science, technology, engineering and life sciences. The cut probably won’t hurt, because research in those areas is largely done by graduate students, not undergrads.

But the cuts will be disruptive. And a second, potentially bigger challenge could be coming for UCSD, which is nearing capacity.

The new budget also proposes to expand undergraduate enrollment in the UC system by 6,230 in 2022-23. The plan, which has yet to be funded, specifies that all of those students must be California residents.

The UC system says this is the largest proposed increase in California-resident undergraduates since 2003-04.

Those 6,230 students would be spread among the UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. But a disproportionate number likely would go to La Jolla because the campus has more room to grow.

For financial reasons, all of this is causing unease at UCSD, whose nearly 40,000 students make it bigger than the community of Rancho Bernardo.

The campus raised a record $365 million in private donations during the fiscal year that ended June 30. But the COVID-19 pandemic cost the campus about $270 million in everything from lost dorm and dining fees to patient service billings at its hospitals and clinics.

And Khosla said the school didn’t receive full funding for about 2,000 of its students last year due to the way the UC system allocates money.

In recent years, UCSD has experienced one of the biggest growth spurts in campus history.
(Gary Robbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

All of this has occurred during breakneck growth. Even during the pandemic, enrollment jumped by 840.

“I’m trying to have my infrastructure catch up with the students,” said Khosla, an engineer. “Student growth is easy. It happens instantaneously. Infrastructure takes three to five years to build.”

The campus opened a 2,000-bed residential complex last year. But UCSD’s housing stock dropped by 2,000 due to the pandemic, which caused the school to reduce the number of students it puts in many rooms.

Another 2,000-bed complex is under construction. But it won’t be ready until 2023, when UCSD easily could have an additional 1,000 students.

The UC system has been experiencing extraordinary enrollment pressures — partly because of its lofty reputation and partly because the state has reasonably good high school graduation rates. Many students meet the system’s tough entrance requirements.

Interest rose further in May 2020 when the system announced that it would no longer consider SAT or ACT scores while making admission and scholarship decisions. The UCs ended up receiving a record 249,855 applications from students seeking to enroll in fall 2021 as freshmen or transfers.

The number of prospective freshmen who applied to UCSD — a top-10 research school — increased by 18,326, pushing to a record 118,360.

It won’t be known until October how many of the students who were accepted actually enrolled and how many of them are from other states or nations. But analysts say a lot of California students who qualified for a spot won’t get one — something that makes many taxpayers and parents angry.

Mick Soriano, a UCSD graduate who lives in Rancho Penasquitos, said: “I would have little problem with shutting out-of-state students out entirely. But to be reasonable, I’d be OK with a maximum acceptance rate of 5 percent.

“Driving around UCSD, you see nonstop construction of new facilities. ... Because of this and other reasons, I don’t believe the UC system needs the out-of-state money that they claim they need.”

Ting gets annoyed when people suggest the Legislature has been stingy when it comes to the UC.

“We have increased the UC’s budget every single year since I’ve been in the Legislature, starting in 2012,” he said. “There are clearly ways the university could have become more efficient.”

Over a longer period, state support is down. In the mid-1970s, about 18 percent of the state’s budget was spent on higher education. By 2016-17, the figure was 12 percent, and the UC system had taken big hits, with funding per full-time-equivalent student dropping from $23,000 to $8,000, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

There’s also tension over the way the UC has handled public funds. Ting pointed to a 2017 state audit that concluded the UC president’s office had “amassed substantial reserve funds, used misleading budgeting practices, provided its employees with generous salaries and atypical benefits, and failed to satisfactorily justify its spending on systemwide initiatives.”

That outraged lawmakers, some of whom also became upset by complaints from parents of high school students that the UC system was overlooking their children in favor of out-of-staters who could pay higher tuition.

Some of the attention inevitably focused on UCSD, with its high international enrollment.

UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla
UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla says “we will certainly find enough Californians” to make up for fewer undergraduates from out of state.
(File)

“Will we find enough Californians to replace the non-residents? The short answer is yes,” Khosla said. “We will certainly find enough Californians. I am not losing sleep over that.

“They could be on the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] side. They could be on the non-STEM side. I want my school to be more balanced and holistic.” ◆