Capitol Alert

Some UC majors see balance shift toward out-of-state students

Students walk through Sather Gate at UC Berkeley in September 2015.
Students walk through Sather Gate at UC Berkeley in September 2015. Los Angeles Times

Over the past five years, the number of out-of-state and international students in UC Berkeley’s engineering majors surged by 79 percent, while California enrollment fell by 13 percent.

Some 350 miles to the south at UCLA, an 18-percent tumble in Californians majoring in engineering offset a 28-percent jump in nonresidents.

These are two of the starkest examples highlighted in a recently-released state audit of the University of California that argued the university disadvantaged resident applicants in its pursuit of students from outside the state and overseas.

UC Berkeley sophomore Aarti Jaggi, a materials science and engineering student from Houston, said her friends sometimes debate whether Californians or nonresidents have a more difficult time getting into the university.

The report examined trends in the UC system’s most popular majors, at its campuses with the highest proportion of nonresidents, between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 academic years. Noting that California enrollment dropped in many of those programs, even as the number of out-of-state and international students continued to swell, the state auditor’s office concluded that some resident high schoolers had been displaced.

State auditor Elaine Howle said the findings undercut an argument UC has been making for years that supplemental fees paid by nonresident students have subsidized slots for thousands of Californians no longer supported by taxpayer funds. She said the university provided no correlation between out-of-state and resident enrollment.

“They are not using nonresident tuition to pay for an additional resident student,” Howle said. Meanwhile, “It’s more difficult for California students to get their coursework.”

UC forcefully rejected the sweeping audit, which also criticized the university’s tuition policies and spending decisions since the recession. UC said recruiting nonresidents was a financial necessity to combat steep state budget cuts that have not been fully restored, and that all eligible California students receive a spot somewhere in the system.

The change in enrollment for some disciplines at several campuses, however, has been dramatic.

At UC San Diego, the number of Californians studying psychology and social sciences both dropped by more than a third over the five-year period, while out-of-state students increased by 244 and 119 percent, respectively.

Resident enrollment in business and management majors at UC Irvine fell by 15 percent, while the number of nonresidents more than quadrupled over the same period.

79 Percentage increase in out-of-state and international students studying engineering at UC Berkeley between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 academic years

The findings set off another bomb in the Capitol’s ongoing battle over access and funding in the prestigious public university system. Lawmakers laid into UC officials at a follow-up hearing, and bills are in the works to limit nonresident admissions or guarantee priority for California applicants.

Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, who criticized UC’s response to the audit as “tone deaf,” said it’s one of the main issues she’s been hearing about from constituents. She said she’s held more than 40 town halls in her district over the past year, and at every one frustrated parents have come up to tell her that their children did not get into the UC campus of their choice or are not even bothering to apply because it seems pointless.

“That’s what the community senses,” Baker said. She’s proposing a constitutional amendment to cap nonresidents at 10 percent of undergraduates, a limit UC adopted in 2010 on the recommendation of a commission concerned about the displacement of California students but later removed. “I’m just going to hold them to their own belief.”


On campus, the response has been akin to a shrug. Students and professors in Berkeley and UCLA’s engineering departments say the sharp increase of nonresidents in recent years has led to few noticeable differences in their classes and jobs, and it’s a rare topic of discussion.

“We are the most apolitical part of the campus. We are stubbornly ignorant of the politics of anything,” said Jeff Eldredge, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA.

The university handled the financial downturn “really well,” he added. “We accept that the cost of doing that was we had to change the makeup of the students.”

UC’s prestigious engineering programs have long been highly competitive for all applicants, drawing international recognition and interest, particularly at the graduate level. For the 2010-11 academic year, only 16.5 percent of California freshmen applicants were admitted to Berkeley engineering majors, for example, well below the campus’ overall resident acceptance rate of 24.5 percent.

But enrollment has not kept up with surging demand from thousands more applicants and warnings from higher education researchers that California is facing a looming degree shortage, especially in technical fields. By the 2014-15 admissions cycle, the acceptance rate for Californians had dropped to 10.5 percent.

Berkeley’s College of Engineering and UCLA’s School of Engineering declined to discuss the audit.

In an e-mail, UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said their engineering departments “did not grow or shrink wildly out-of-proportion to the overall campus.” Nonresident enrollment doubled and the number of California students dipped by about 8 percent over the period covered by the audit.

“We set targets to keep total campus resident enrollment at the level funded by the state,” she wrote. “Non-resident enrollment grew as it did to keep overall campus enrollment at a consistent level in line with targets.”

The steep growth of out-of-state and international students represent “additional seats created, not seats replaced,” she added. “Any drop during that time in California resident numbers below the targeted numbers was unintentional and will be remedied.”

Non-resident enrollment grew as it did to keep overall campus enrollment at a consistent level in line with targets.

UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore

As part of a budget deal with Gov. Jerry Brown, UC plans to enroll 10,000 more Californians over the next three years, and will add another 3,000 nonresidents to help pay for it. Berkeley and UCLA are both set to take an additional 750 in-state freshmen and transfers this fall.

UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez offered no explanation for the enrollment shift in their engineering program, but said in an e-mail that the school did not experience an overall decline in California students across its most popular majors.

“Nonresident enrollment growth in these majors did outpace California resident growth, but that is strictly the result of total enrollment growth,” he wrote. “While total nonresident enrollment grew during those five years, total enrollment of California residents remained stable.”

That approach has angered many Californians who worry UC is losing sight of its mission to provide an affordable education to the state’s top high school graduates. Parents have publicly bemoaned that a university sustained by their tax dollars did not accept their children to the campus of their choice

Hoping to stay in California after graduating from Rocklin High School two years ago, Paulo Buencamino applied to the mechanical engineering programs at seven UC campuses.

Though his scores were about average for most of them – 3.3 grade point average, 1870 out of 2400 on the SAT, 29 out of 36 on the ACT – he hoped his years of elective engineering courses, as well as his extracurricular participation in technical drafting competitions and a California Department of Education advisory committee on technical education standards, would push him over the edge. But Buencamino was only offered a spot at UC Merced.

“I did actual engineering,” he said. “That’s why I was disappointed that I didn’t get into a few more UCs.”

After campus visits, he opted instead to attend Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where he has enjoyed the hands-on approach to engineering instruction. Buencamino is headed to Hamburg this summer for an internship at a biotech company, and he is no longer certain that he will wind up back in California after graduation.

“The way schools make connections with the community, you have more job offers near where you go to school,” he said.

The controversy has seeped onto UC campuses in small ways. On a recent afternoon, several students at Berkeley’s Bechtel Engineering Center mentioned friends from outside California who at some point fretted that they only got in because of their nonresident status, and the $24,000 supplemental fee they pay as a result.

All we’re being asked to do is take more students with no budget.

Alan Laub, a professor in the electrical engineering and math departments at UCLA

Some professors acknowledged that having so many students from all over the world, many of them English learners with different cultural norms, has created new barriers to communication.

“You can’t tell the same jokes,” said Alan Laub, a professor in the electrical engineering and math departments at UCLA. “I don’t feel as connected with the students. That’s what’s missing now.”

But he’s much more concerned about ballooning class sizes – he said he recently taught an introductory math course with two sections of about 225 students each – and an infrastructure that cannot sustain the growth.

“People feel like the university has been unfairly targeted by the Legislature, which does not understand what the university really is,” Laub said. “All we’re being asked to do is take more students with no budget.”

Discussions almost invariably turn at some point to overcrowding – in classrooms, in housing.

“We actually do talk about that quite frequently,” said Jacob Kitley, a freshman from California studying engineering mathematics and statistics at Berkeley. He said news about the planned enrollment expansion mostly raised concerns among students, who are scrambling to find housing next year.

“It’s not about fairness for Californians,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, jeez. Where are these people gonna go?’”

Aarti Jaggi, a sophomore in Berkeley’s materials science and engineering program, said it’s never caused problems that she’s from Houston, Texas – half of her friends are Californians and half are from outside the state.

“Sometimes there will be a debate: Who had it harder to get in?” she offered.

Like late one recent evening, sitting on the floor of her dorm room, after Jaggi wondered whether her sister, who she thought had an even stronger academic record than her own, would also be admitted to Berkeley.

“You’re lucky to get in either way,” she said.

Her family seems to have luck on its side. Jaggi’s sister was accepted to Berkeley this spring.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff