Auditor is wrong on UC admissions

Students stroll on the UCLA campus in February. The SAT scores of out-of-state students admitted to UCLA surpass those of their in-state counterparts, says Robert J. Birgeneau, a former UC Berkeley chancellor.
Students stroll on the UCLA campus in February. The SAT scores of out-of-state students admitted to UCLA surpass those of their in-state counterparts, says Robert J. Birgeneau, a former UC Berkeley chancellor. Associated Press file

When institutions are under stress, they often find themselves under attack by those responsible for the stress in the first place. This is dramatically illustrated by the recent state auditor’s report that heavily criticizes the University of California for many supposed faults, especially admissions policies and administrative inefficiencies.

I was taken aback by the auditor’s accusations, wondering if the facts had changed so dramatically since I stepped down as chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2013. They have not!

An especially controversial issue is admissions for nonresidents to the UC system as a whole, but most especially to the flagship schools, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The auditor states that many nonresidents are being admitted who are less qualified than California residents.

So what are the facts? Because UCLA and UC Berkeley practice holistic admissions, direct comparison of qualifications is difficult. However, there is one metric that is universal, namely SAT scores, because all applicants take the same tests. The average SAT score for California students admitted to UCLA is 1993 out of 2400; for residents admitted to UC Berkeley, it’s 2075.

For accepted out-of-state students, the average scores are higher – 2153 at UCLA and 2237 at Berkeley. Clearly, nonresident students are superbly well-qualified academically. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not correct.

When I stepped down as chancellor at Berkeley in 2013, the number of students from California was the same as when I started in 2004. The additional nonresident students did not displace California residents. The only reason that we could take on these extra students was that their tuition and fees covered the actual cost of their education, unlike residents, who are egregiously underfunded by the state.

Entirely lost in the public discussion is the value that geographic diversity brings to the classrooms, dormitories and playing fields. I remember dramatically one conversation I had with a group of freshmen in fall 2009. We were discussing the financial meltdown, and at one point one student got a wry smile on his face and said: “Well, I am from Greece. Let me tell you what a real financial crisis is!”

He then proceeded to do just that. Even if the California students never took an economics class, they had learned a lot about international economics.

The value of geographic diversity is not just intellectual. The tuition paid most especially by international students helps finance the education of in-state students. Indeed, those resources made it possible for Berkeley to become the first U.S. public university to offer comprehensive financial aid to in-state middle-class students. This is one reason why UC Berkeley students graduate with among the lowest student debt in the nation.

The auditor’s report is correct in pointing out the impact of out-of-state admits on the ethnic diversity of our student body. This is solvable, but it will require a change in UC policies to ensure that adequate financial aid is available to out-of-state students from low- and middle-income families.

Finally, the auditor criticizes the UC for administrative inefficiencies, implying that tuition costs could be significantly lower except for wasteful spending. Coming from an employee of the state government, this attack is highly ironic. It feels like a player on the 76ers telling Stephen Curry how to play basketball.

Of course, any institution can become more efficient. As UC President Janet Napolitano has clearly explained, campuses have made significant progress on this front and more is to come.

But right now, tuition and fees at UCLA and UC Berkeley are less than one-third of those at USC and Stanford, while we provide a comparable education to our undergraduates. What other institutions in California are that cost effective?

Robert J. Birgeneau is a professor physics and public policy and chancellor emeritus at UC Berkeley. He can be contacted at