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Viewpoints: Napolitano needs to make equal access a priority at UC schools

The University of California’s new president, Janet Napolitano, called for a much-needed increase in UC’s enrollment of low-income students, undocumented immigrants and under-represented students of color. But Napolitano is unlikely to either quell her critics or expand access to UC with just the $10 million she promised for new initiatives.

Nearly 20 years after California’s ban on affirmative action, it is more urgent than ever that we break the many barriers that prevent qualified but underprivileged students from attending UC.

Napolitano could begin with two bold steps: First, UC could reallocate much more money to pay for more underprivileged students to attend UC tuition-free or debt-free. UC could then offer more spots, particularly at UC’s most elite campuses, for top students from California high schools and community colleges with high concentrations of underprivileged students.

We can make higher education a bulwark against inequality only if all levels of higher education are equally accessible to students from all walks of life. A degree from a more prestigious university offers students much more in economic gains than a degree from a community college.

But while Latinos, African Americans and other underrepresented groups have won increased access across the higher education system, they have made the least headway at research universities, the sector of higher education that is most prestigious and that includes UC.

To work, an access initiative needs to tackle similar inequality within the UC system. For example, while Latinos made up 46 percent of California high school graduates in 2011, they made up just 17 percent of students across all UC campuses and just 12 percent of students at UC’s prestigious Berkeley campus.

UC could tackle this inequality by prioritizing underrepresented students from California rather than competing with the Ivy League for top students from other states. During the financial crisis, UC Berkeley instead led a systemwide reduction in enrollment of students from California. At Berkeley, this included a decline in the already low enrollment of African American students from California. UC then enrolled more students from out of state who could pay higher tuition rates.

Because underprivileged Californians are more likely to need financial aid, it will not be cheap to increase their enrollment. But UC has the money even without additional state funding. On top of management bloat, UC spends far more than most public universities on auxiliary services that include many amenities such as stadiums and recreational facilities.

In a new issue brief, a colleague and I show that UC increased spending on auxiliary services from $700 million in 2001-02 to $1.5 billion, or $6,728 per full-time student, in 2009-10, the last year for which data are easily accessible. The University of Wisconsin, a comparable elite public university, spent just $2,750 per student on auxiliary services.

UC also spends increasing and abnormally large sums on interest, including for Wall Street bonds that finance new amenities. In 2009-10, UC spent more than $460 million, or $2,078 per student, just on interest for its debts. UW spent just $269 per student on interest.

It won’t be easy to offer more spots at the most prestigious UC campuses for the best students from California’s underrepresented communities. And paying for it will be even harder. But if Napolitano pushes through these changes, she would be a transformative UC president.