Let’s keep perspective in fight over out-of-state students

Royce Hall towers over the UCLA campus, where out-of-state admissions were so high that the UC system capped them last year.
Royce Hall towers over the UCLA campus, where out-of-state admissions were so high that the UC system capped them last year. Los Angeles Times file

When the University of California threatened a tuition hike last year in a bid for more state funding, lawmakers bristled at what seemed to them an act of impudence, if not a declaration of war.

Once a stately dance in which the UC essentially took what the governor and Legislature offered, higher education appropriation became a high-profile standoff. Old resentments were aired: the backslide in state support, the salaries of UC administration, the snootiness of the UC crowd, the California kids (and politicians) who didn’t get into their first-choice campus.

But when Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano announced a deal that gave UC more money, kept tuition flat and enrolled more in-state students, it appeared the political potshots were over.

As a UC undergraduate might put it, LOL.

This week, just in time for college acceptance season, the state auditor issued a blistering report, charging that the university is admitting too many out-of-state students, to the detriment of Californians.

Ordered up in the heat of last year’s battle by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson – whose own son is, awkwardly, among the legions of kids now awaiting a decision on UC admission – the audit fed the canard that the university, in its hunger for money and refusal to curb spending, has somehow allowed rich outsiders to crowd out deserving in-state kids.

UC may have room for improvement, but that’s just not so.

UC enrollment remains overwhelmingly Californian, even at internationally known campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley. Last fall, about 31,000 nonresidents were among the 168,000 or so undergrads enrolled in the system.

Every California student whose grades meet the in-state criteria still gets a spot at some UC campus, and two-thirds get into at least one of the campuses they’ve chosen. Californians pay far less to go to a UC than nonresidents (and many pay zero).

And out-of-state enrollment, even at Cal and UCLA, is still far below that of comparable public institutions, such as the universities of Oregon and Michigan. So let’s maintain perspective, please.

Out-of-state enrollment has spiked, to the point that, last year, Napolitano capped it at UCLA and Berkeley. Systemwide, the auditor found that it rose 82 percent between 2010 and 2014, a numerical increase of about 18,000 undergrads.

The auditor blamed policy changes that let campuses keep more of the supplemental fees charged to nonresident students, and noted a drop of about 2,200 in-state students during the same time frame. She also found that thousands of nonresidents were admitted even though their grades and test scores were below the median for Californians.

Those are disturbing charges, if true, though like most of the audit, the UC vehemently disputes them. Admissions criteria, they say, have been made more “holistic” for all students, and the extra revenue from out-of-state fees actually subsidizes Californians whom they couldn’t afford to let in otherwise.

Gipson and company are right to look out for Californians. Out-of-state students shouldn’t be getting in with subpar grades and test scores, and in-state students who worked hard enough to make the cut shouldn’t be left with no choice other than the newbie campus, UC Merced, although there are worse fates.

But nonresident enrollment isn’t a bad thing; meeting out-of-state students is one reason in-state students want to go to any college. And last year’s power struggle shouldn’t be reignited just because some lawmaker might need an issue to run on.

Californians have some real decisions to make about how and whether to preserve this state’s system of public higher education – a costly line item that is among California’s greatest achievements.

These decisions are already emotional; just ask those kids waiting by their mailboxes, including Gipson’s. Debating them in a crossfire won’t make them easier.