For parents and children, a UC chain is broken

03/16/2014 12:00 AM

03/14/2014 8:49 PM

The envelopes have begun arriving at the homes of high school seniors everywhere. The fat ones bring glee, relief, a giddy sense of achievement. The thin ones mean dejection and frequently, tears.

At our house, the senior is waiting on 10 envelopes. Which college will open its arms and offer her a life-shaping, four-year embrace remains a mystery. But one thing is certain:

None of the envelopes will come from the University of California.

Like her older sister, our daughter has no interest in our state’s premier public university system. Given her parents’ educational background, that’s a bit puzzling. And a bit sad.

First, a little context.

There’s a sign taped to our kitchen window that says “Go Bears” and a Cal bumper sticker on the car, symbols of my husband’s enduring ardor for his alma mater, or at least its woebegone football team. Eric still reminisces about his days as a rower on Berkeley’s crew team and his long nights with Shakespeare in Doe Library’s reading room.

My UC was down south, in San Diego. As a history major, I was an outcast in a sea of aspiring engineers and biochemists. But the academics were solid, I could play intercollegiate soccer and the price was right. And, truth be told, the joys of studying while stretched out on one of the world’s most spectacular beaches never waned.

As a family, our connection with the University of California continued. Each summer we took the girls to the Lair of the Bear, Berkeley’s mountain camp for alumni, where we sang the Cal fight song and dutifully harassed anyone who dared to wear red – the signature color of Cal’s archrival, Stanford. We faithfully donated money to our two campuses and I occasionally served as a career mentor for UCSD undergrads, sharing insights about my field.

Considering all that, it seemed a given that one or both daughters would enroll at a UC. So what happened?

Our kids say it’s all about the kind of college experience they wanted – and didn’t want. For years, they’ve heard cautionary tales about the challenges of being an undergraduate in the teeming UC system, from the inability to get into necessary classes to the 500-student lecture halls, inaccessible professors and struggles to get help from overburdened teaching assistants.

By the time our oldest daughter began the college hunt, her eyes were opening to other possibilities. After visiting three UC campuses as application season approached, we dropped by the Claremont Colleges near Los Angeles to see a different model. She never again considered a UC, deciding small was beautiful and applying via the early decision process to just one school.

Now three semesters in, she declares her experience phenomenal. A big plus is the small class size – typically fewer than 20 kids. That fosters a close connection with professors, who, in her words, create “an intellectually demanding setting but also want me to do well, and take it personally when I don’t.”

It’s also about opportunity and engagement. As a sophomore, our daughter conducts research for a professor – and gets paid for it – through an on-campus public policy institute, serves in student government and mentors an at-risk teen in the community. Before she was sidelined by an injury, she also played on the Division III soccer team.

Daughter No. 2, watching from afar, likes what she sees. She wants that same intimate learning environment, though her gaze is mostly fixed on East Coast schools.

For us parents, the small size of a liberal arts college feels like big value, at least for undergraduates. The strong alumni network, help with landing internships and personal mentoring by professors seem like important assets in these competitive times.

Speaking of assets, money is the other big factor in this mix. In my youth the comparative bargain that a University of California degree represented was practically irresistible. But economically, it’s not an easy call any more, even for those of us with middle-class incomes.

UC fee increases have narrowed the tuition gap, and the generous merit and financial aid packages offered by many private colleges close that distance still further. If you don’t believe me, go online and check out the Net Price Calculator.

When you factor in the reality that graduating in four years is virtually mandatory at most privates – and definitely not a given at UC – it’s almost a wash.

None of this is an indictment of the University of California, or a claim that one college path is superior to another. With its groundbreaking research and Nobel laureates, UC remains a powerhouse of higher education, and, as I noted, it’s sad the system held no allure for our daughters.

We are in good company, however. Recently, I compiled a list of friends who graduated from a UC and have college-age kids. There are 20 of them, including six all-UC couples. Out of that group, only one child followed her parents’ educational footsteps into the UC system, enrolling (very happily) at Cal. The others? They’re at Harvard, MIT, USC, Michigan, Whitman, Willamette, Puget Sound, Occidental, Chapman, Santa Clara, Tulane, Purdue, Florida, Washington and the University of Redlands.

My survey sample is small, and newly christened UC President Janet Napolitano has plenty of other things to worry about. But when the offspring of UC grads give the system the scholarly stiff arm, there must be some lesson to be learned.

Perhaps it’s that nurturing multigenerational loyalty is important, especially if UC ever hopes to grow bigger endowments as a cushion for lean budget times. For our family, it means the chain is broken, and the peeling Cal bumper sticker may soon be gone for good.

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