A representative of the University of California outlined the concerted efforts the system is undertaking to increase public trust, academic excellence and access, during a virtual presentation on “The Future of the UC System” at the Rotary Club of Los Altos meeting Nov. 18.

Kathleen Fullerton, associate director of strategy, planning and operations for state governmental relations in the UC Office of the President, analyzes the financial and political stresses on the system. She graduated from UC Davis and spent 20 years in state government, including in the State Auditor’s Office, where she surveyed UC admissions and spending. After noting that her government work contributed to the public’s growing distrust, she decided to work for the UC system to help turn that perception around.

The UC system is extensive: The third-largest employer in California, it covers 10 campuses, three national laboratories, five academic health centers, more than 160 academic disciplines and the largest health training program in the U.S. Michael V. Drake, M.D., serves as president of the UC system, which is governed by a 26-member Board of Regents.

Budget and tuition constitute an imposing challenge at UC campuses, Fullerton said. With student demand for enrollment growing at the same time financial support from the state has failed to cover all of its cost increases, the UC system faces a proverbial perfect storm. To continue operating at its current level, UCs will raise tuition next year using a “cohort model,” wherein students will pay the same amount throughout their tenure, but each incoming class will pay an amount adjusted by the rate of inflation compared to the prior year. Grants are now available for middle-class families, but many more students now vie for admission.

Additional challenges

Fullerton shared a second challenge: students applying with increasingly elevated high school grade-point averages. In 1995, only 35% of high school graduates had completed all UC pre-requisite courses; today, it is nearly 50%. In addition, 70% of UCLA students accepted, for example, boast an extremely competitive 4.2 or above GPA. Systemwide enrollment has increased by 36% in the past 10 years and is more diverse, she said, but only one new campus has opened since 1965 – UC Merced in 2005. The system is using nontraditional ways to expand capacity, according to Fullerton, such as partnering with a non-UC campus, expanding summer school offerings and transitioning to offering some courses online.

Another challenge, Fullerton said, is enrollment of California residents versus nonresidents. Yearly tuition and fees for state residents average $12,570, plus health care, textbooks and living expenses, while nonresidents pay a premium of $42,000 for tuition and fees. UC administrators and the State Legislature are taking steps to limit out-of-state enrollment, even though nonresidents pay higher tuition.

The lack of affordable student housing also poses a problem. There are currently 7,500 students on campus housing waitlists. Direction from state legislators to increase enrollment is aggravated by widespread challenges that attempt to limit student housing, Fullerton added.

An additional concern focuses on public scrutiny of UC administrators’ compensation. Fullerton compared UC salaries with other public and private universities, revealing that UC chancellors are among the lowest-paid university leaders, with nine chancellor salaries falling among the lowest third of the 66 leading research universities in the U.S.

Despite the challenges, attendance at UC campuses continues to grow. Among the top ten national public universities recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report, six are UCs, and Fullerton reiterated that the University of California is committed to accessibility and excellence for state residents.

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit losaltosrotary.org.