As applications pour into UCSC, the university gets more selective
Nearly 55,000 hopeful students sent in undergraduate applications to UCSC this year—a record number, and a sign the university is a hot ticket for students looking for a world-class college experience. This year’s lucky students will begin getting letters of acceptance on March 15.
Yet despite an 11 percent increase in UCSC hopefuls over the last year, the university will trend downward in first-year students. It plans to enroll 3,200 to 3,500—500 to 700 fewer than in 2014.
That’s because when UCSC sent out its acceptance letters just over a year ago, a surprisingly large number of people enrolled.
“We were more successful than we intended to be in fall 2014, and we got more acceptances than we anticipated,” says Michael McCawley, director of admissions at UCSC. This year’s reversal marks a “kind of course correction,” he says, to ensure the university has the resources to serve all students.
Unfortunately for students, it’s a situation that could get much worse as UC applications rise, state funding dissipates and capacity is stretched to its limits.
UC Student Association board director Guillermo Rogel says the drop in UCSC’s admissions is a small but critical blow to a system that’s already failing to meet its own goal of admitting the top 12.5 percent of high school students, as the state continues to grow.
“It makes a difference, because system-wide, we’re seeing applications go up,” says Rogel, a UCSC junior who’s also on the UC’s planning and budget committee. “Just reducing admissions by a few hundred students [emphasizes] the fact that we can’t take as many students as we would like to. That has an effect on their career plans. When it’s the fault of the university, the student suffers for something they didn’t have anything to do with.”
Additionally, plans to expand UCSC are going nowhere fast at the moment for a number of reasons, including a lack of state of funding, and a limited water supply.
Rogel says, in principle, he would like to see the university grow to accommodate more students, but adds that the system needs to better provide for the students it has first.
Many Santa Cruz activists, though, are content with the stalled progress. They worried about the impact expansions would have on the city, as well as of what they would mean for the redwood ecosystems north of Colleges 9 and 10.
“I don’t want that forest destroyed,” says former Mayor Bruce Van Allen. “I don’t want the increased impact of urbanization up there.”
UCSC’s jump in applicants is consistent with the trend across the UC system, which saw a 5.8 percent increase in applicants from Fall 2014. It’s the eleventh straight year of applicant growth, with numbers rising at every undergraduate campus. This year, UCLA received more applications than any university in the country.
“We have record demand for the caliber of education, which is the good news,” says Dianne Klein, spokesperson for the University of California. “The bad news is we don’t have the funding from the state.”
Though primarily an institution for California residents, the UC system has seen state funding to educate California undergrads evaporate. The UC receives $460 million less from the state than it did in 2007, yet it’s enrolling tens of thousands more students, Klein says—leading the UC Regents to approve a tuition hike in November. UC President Janet Napolitano has since postponed the increase, citing efforts lead by Gov. Jerry Brown to look for better efficiency within the system.
The UC has asked for almost $100 million additional funds from the state, but won’t know until June whether that money comes through. Klein says more money means UCs could enroll more in-state students. The UC has increased enrollment percentages of out-of-state students, who pay a higher tuition.
McCawley says more state funding doesn’t necessarily equate to more enrollments at UCSC, at least not for Fall 2015. McCawley isn’t clear how more resources would deal with the situation of funding students already attending at UCSC.
Limited funding is a staggering issue, and one Governor Jerry Brown and Napolitano are working together to resolve, but the issues run deeper than dollar signs at UCSC.
UCSC officials don’t enjoy turning away droves of students, and McCawley says next year that the school will know whether or not it has a problem on its hands—if applications continue trending upward. The irony, he says, is becoming more selective often drives up demand from prospective students. After all, everyone wants to apply to more prestigious schools.
McCawley worries that if application rates to continue rise, UCSC won’t be able to absorb the demand.
Plans to expand the campus are outlined in UCSC’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), which explains how the university could grow by several thousand more students, in part by adding buildings on the school’s north campus.
The city of Santa Cruz and other parties filed suit against the school over the LRDP, but litigation ended in 2008 with the Comprehensive Settlement Agreement negotiated by Mayor Ryan Coonerty, and the university is still in an “if we grow” mode when it comes to implementing its recommendations. But it isn’t clear when there will adequate be enough funding to do so.
UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason says a committee is currently looking into how the university can provide housing for two-thirds of new students. The committee’s report is due in the summer, and its recommendations could include constructing new buildings on north campus, Hernandez-Jason says, though it is focused on west campus.
As part of the 2008 settlement agreement, UCSC must house 67 percent of its students if it grows. A question the university will have to answer is: what would make students want to pay $1,200-$1,900 per month—the current cost of room and board at the school—when much cheaper deals are available in town?
Hernandez-Jason says that campus housing does have its perks, including student resources and convenience.
Then there’s the issue of water. UCSC has adopted considerable water conservation measures, and Hernandez-Jason says any plans for new buildings will incorporate sustainable water processes. But the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to expand into north campus was determined to be invalid, largely because of water rights.
City Attorney John Barisone says the university hasn’t asked the city to remedy a defect in the report. The EIR was part of city and university applications to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) seeking an extension of city water and sewer services into north campus. A court ruling rejected the EIR on grounds it didn’t adequately account for water alternatives to a desalination plant, something the city was actively studying at the time. Since then, desalination has been put on hold, as the city figures out how it will manage the future of its water supply.
The LAFCO applications are still pending, and Hernandez-Jason says the university is currently exploring all options related to its application.
If the university decided to move into north campus, Barisone says it would be an arduous process.
“The university can’t [grow] very quickly,” he says. “It can happen more quickly if they decide to expand within the area where the city already provides water service. But it would be a several-years process to get buildings designed and built.”
Former Mayor Van Allen says if the campus grows, he would like to see it do so in a 100 percent water-neutral way, reducing water usage somewhere else while adding it in other areas, or by offsetting the additional use by paying for others to cut water. In addition, he worries about the impact campus growth would have on local roads and housing costs.
He says this year’s drop in UCSC’s admissions might be a good opportunity for the UC to address the best way to accommodate demand statewide.
“If more students are brought here with no additional housing and no lower housing costs on campus, it’s just going to get worse and worse,” he says. “Further expansion of campus means more people, more office space, more workers and therefore more water.”
PHOTO: In 2008, Micah Posner, now a city councilmember, spoke against UCSC expansion plans that today look increasingly less likely. MELISSA RACHEL BLACK