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California's Public Universities Are (Mostly) Full. Why Not Build Another Campus?
Gov. Gavin Newsom wants at least 70% of working-age Californians to have a college degree or certificate by 2030. Where they get those degrees is another question.
Three men standing around a shovel at a groundbreaking are collaged against a separate image of a construction site. There are five text boxes over the construction site. The first reads "University of California at..." The next four read "Santa Clarita?," "Anaheim?," "Palm Springs?," and "Downey?"
(Collage by Alborz Kamalizad
LAist, photographs courtesy of UCLA)
(Collage by Alborz Kamalizad
LAist, photographs courtesy of UCLA)
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Scroll through Tiktok or Instagram around the time most students get acceptance letters from University of California schools and you'll see lots of ecstatic faces and happy tears, all set to seemingly made-for-that-moment tunes ("She just moved to LA … Go to UCLA…" sings RL Grime).

California's Public Universities Are (Mostly) Full. Why Not Build Another Campus?

A surprising number of students also post videos of their UC rejections, broadcasting their heartbreak to the world. Or maybe it's not that surprising considering that the pool of rejected students is much bigger than the accepted pool.

California has what might be considered a good problem: We produce too many worthy students for the number of spots available in the state's four-year universities. The nonprofit College Futures Foundation estimated in a 2019 study that California's four-year colleges and universities would be short some 144,000 seats for qualified students by 2030.

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About three-quarters of undergraduate university seats in California are at UC and CSU campuses, and many of these campuses are among the highest ranked schools in the country in terms of reputation, value and opportunity for economic mobility. Yet students have to be increasingly special to get in.

Last year, the University of California's nine undergraduate campuses saw a 13% increase in applications from California students compared to the previous year. But enrollment of California students for the fall 2021 semester increased by less than 1%, or around 1,600 students, across all campuses, according to university data.

In 2020 (before "pass-no pass" grading and other pandemic-era considerations may have skewed the data), the average high school GPA of students admitted to UC was above 4.0 at six out of the nine campuses, according to a report from the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Students who graduate in the top 9% of their class, or in the top 9% of all California graduates, are guaranteed a spot at the University of California. If they're not admitted to their campus of choice, they get offered a spot "if and where there is space available." As the Campaign for College Opportunity points out, since 2014, space has only been available for these students at UC Merced.

The UC seat crunch is especially acute in Los Angeles: Last year, UCLA got the most in-state freshman applications of any UC campus, but accepted the smallest number of those applicants, one out of every 10. The average high school GPA of students admitted to UCLA in 2020 was 4.22.

At Cal State Los Angeles, every undergraduate major is "impacted," meaning there are far more eligible students than available space, and therefore students have to meet extra requirements to get accepted.

"These are public institutions," said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity. "Families and students in the service areas of these universities should be able to find a spot there."

Time To Get Creative

So … why not build another UC campus?

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Imagine it: UC Santa Clarita. UC Anaheim. UC Palm Springs.

If Southern California were to get a new UC campus, Dow said she'd want it to be on the eastside of Los Angeles "no doubt." Perhaps, she said, in the San Gabriel Valley to serve the area's majority Latino and Asian population, or Vernon "where you've got a lot of land available."

Higher education leaders agree that the state's public university system needs to grow somehow. UC President Michael V. Drake has set a goal of adding 20,000 seats for undergraduate and graduate students by the end of this decade.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed 2022-2023 higher education budget aims for a future (2030) where 70% of the working-age population has a college degree or certificate. Hans Johnson, director of the Public Policy Institute of California's Higher Education Center, said the goal aligns well with the institute's prediction that two out of every five jobs in 2030 will require at least a bachelor's degree.

It's insane that UCLA is in the city of Los Angeles that is majority Latino … but has one of the lowest rates of Latinx enrollment proportionally.
— Audrey Dow, Campaign for College Opportunity

The governor's proposed budget promises money for the UC system contingent upon increasing undergraduate enrollment by 7,132 students next year (about 3%) and approximately 1% each year after that through 2027.

The governor's budget notes that "a significant portion of the new enrollment growth" should occur at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. These campuses are already under legislative orders to reduce enrollment of out-of-state and international students by a collective 4,600 seats over the next five years and to give those seats to California residents instead.

For the 23-campus California State University system, the goal is to increase undergraduate enrollment by about 8% next year (9,434 students) and approximately 1% each year after that through 2027.

California has responded to capacity issues before with major construction. The state established UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz in quick succession in the 1960s to address the incoming wave of Baby Boomers.

So how about it? Tear down a golf course and build UC Downey?

"I think it's still up in the air whether that's actually the right way to scale," said UC Regent Maria Anguiano, who's co-chairing a new working group tasked with planning for increased student capacity. "Building a new campus takes a long, long time and is very costly." But, she added, "I don't think we should take that off the table."

UC East LA?

Johnson thinks slots should be available for students where demand is highest. But expanding or densifying existing campuses comes with its own set of challenges. "UCLA and Berkeley, in particular, are surrounded by neighborhoods where it is just a lot more difficult for a lot of reasons," Johnson said.

These include lack of physical space and neighbors who don't want a bigger campus and "have the ability and willingness to file lawsuits," he said. In August 2021, a judge even ordered UC Berkeley to stop growing enrollment because of the campus's impact on housing and noise in the surrounding community.

Dow and other education leaders say growth should especially serve students who have historically been underrepresented in higher education.

"It's insane that UCLA is in the city of Los Angeles that is majority Latino … but has one of the lowest rates of Latinx enrollment proportionally," Dow said. Just 20% of UCLA's undergraduate population is Latino.

UC Regent Anguiano noted that well over half of California's public school population is Latino and yet Latinos make up only one-quarter of all UC undergraduates. "We need to double the amount of spots just for Latinx students," she said.

A woman in a black outfit and a green jacket stands on a dirt road. A vast expanse of unbuilt land stretches behind her to the right, while a small housing development can be seen on the left.
Miranda Evans, special projects manager for the city of Chula Vista, stands on land set aside for a new campus — if someone would just build there.
(Jill Replogle

UC Chula Vista?

The city of Chula Vista owns 383 acres of rolling hills about halfway between downtown San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.

"It truly is a shovel-ready site," said Miranda Evans, special projects manager for the city. "We just need someone there."

Local officials have long hoped to attract a university to southern San Diego County, to serve a fast-growing population that now numbers more than 275,000 and is 60% Latino.

The acreage has already been master planned for a "university innovation district," including a campus, business park and housing.

The closest public universities, San Diego State University and UC San Diego, are 13 and 20 miles away, respectively, and are among the state's most competitive campuses. "I mean talk about a region where local students are completely shut out," Dow said.

Chula Vista was one of five locations recently studied for a potential new California State University campus as part of the 2019 budget act. The consultants hired to do the evaluation released their nearly 200-page report in July 2020, concluding that the CSU system could handle projected enrollment growth without building a new campus if the existing campuses were fully built out according to their long-range plans.

But the report also noted the lack of secure funding for expanding existing campuses, and said the legislature might want to consider factors other than straight seats for students, "such as equitable access for underrepresented students and alignment between academic programs and workforce demand."

Technology has changed and you may not need to build things the way they've always been built.
— John "Jack" Garamendi, Calaveras County supervisor

Chula Vista has remained undeterred. The city is now pursuing the idea of several, possibly private colleges or branch universities co-locating on the land, similar to the Claremont Colleges. Ideally, local leaders would like the campus to be binational, with a Mexican university affiliate.

Evans said after 20 years of trying to attract a traditional public campus, the city was now "thinking outside of the box a little bit and not waiting so long for the bureaucracy of education to catch up to what we want to do."

'The Last Great Battleship'

Opening a brand new university campus, as Chula Vista knows, requires sustained fortitude. When California's newest public university, UC Merced, welcomed its first undergraduate class in fall 2005, it had been 40 years since a new UC campus opened (UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz both opened in 1965).

There were lots of moments when UC Merced almost didn't happen. And the campus had plenty of critics.

"Everybody kept saying, from Dan Walters at the Sacramento Bee to many legislators and people in neighboring areas and valleys, 'we shouldn't be building this campus, this is a waste of time and money, we should expand what we've already got,'" said John “Jack” Garamendi, founding vice chancellor of UC Merced and now a Calaveras County supervisor.

But UC leadership had appointed Carol Tomlinson-Keasey as founding chancellor of UC Merced in 1999. "And Carol was not going to quit," Garamendi said, "so every time we found something that was an impossible obstacle, she just found another way to do it." Tomlinson-Keasey died in 2009.

Garamendi also remembers intense lobbying from the Merced community, including sending busloads of schoolchildren to Sacramento to tell legislators why they needed the campus. The Central Valley had then — and still has — among the state's lowest college-going rates.

Today, UC Merced has infused money and jobs into the local economy and enrolls a little more than 9,000 students, almost all of them California residents. Merced also plays an outsized role in helping the university system meet its goals of enrolling underrepresented students: the campus's student body includes a higher percentage of Black students (6.7% of the student body) and Latino students (52%) than any other UC school.

Garamendi is proud of his role in opening the campus.

"We also knew that perhaps we were building the last great battleship in the age of Tomahawk missiles," he said. "Technology has changed and you may not need to build things the way they've always been built: spread-out, thousand-acre campuses with massive research facilities."

A Different Way To Do College?

Among the many ways the pandemic has upended education is the fading idea that a sprawling campus is crucial for one's college education, experts said. Dow from the Campaign for College Opportunity said educating California's future workforce will require rethinking the traditional four-year college experience to include things like weekend classes, satellite campuses and hybrid in-person and online learning.

"If we continue to think about education and the delivery of education in a typical bricks-and-mortar way, that all instruction has to be on this specific campus, that at all instruction has to be done between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. or the majority thereof, then we're not going to meet the challenge that's before us," she said.

Dow also thinks universities should work harder to meet the needs of students who can't travel far from home to study, who may be older, or who are juggling family duties and jobs.

"If campuses or our systems are slow to latch on to a more adaptable model … it really misses the mark on who our students are today," she said. "There has to be an acknowledgement that many of our underrepresented students in higher education are not traditional students."

Dow and others applauded ongoing efforts to create more seats at UC and CSU by speeding up graduation and easing transfers from community colleges to four-year schools. "The quicker we get students through that system, the more spots that we're opening up," Dow said.

The Public Policy Institute of California reported last year that the state has made "considerable gains" in closing the gap between projected college degree-holders and the state's needs for highly skilled workers. Johnson said that's "fantastic news."

The Master Plan For Higher Education
  • On April 27, 1960, Governor Pat Brown signed Senate Bill 33 into law, calling it "the most significant step California has ever taken in the planning for the education of our youth." That bill put into effect the Master Plan For Higher Education.

  • The Master Plan created a three-tier system of higher education in California, intended to respond to the growing wave of incoming students — the Baby Boomers born after World War II.

  • The plan reflected the idea that there could be "a place in higher education for every student." To help with that goal, the state moved quickly to open UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz.

But it's not the same as meeting the demand of every Californian who wants a four-year public education. Johnson thinks the state should consider an update to the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education to expand the pool of students intended for consideration by UC or CSU. The Master Plan was itself a response to worries that the higher education system didn’t have enough spots for qualified students.

"A lot of California high school students and their families are very disappointed if they don't get into a UC campus, but that is by design of our system right now," Johnson said.

It doesn't have to be that way, he said. Other state university systems, including the University of Texas and Arizona State University, have dramatically expanded access for in-state students in recent decades.

"I think the central challenge facing higher education today in California, in the United States, is whether or not it simply reinforces economic and class divides in our society or provides for a meaningful ladder of educational and economic mobility," Johnson said. "So that means that, in a state like California, where higher education is largely a public endeavor … and with an economy that is increasingly demanding of highly educated and highly skilled workers, then the call is for our public higher education systems to respond to that demand."

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