Ditch Master, Save Plan

Recently, an editorial appeared in the New U (“Time to Update the Master Plan?” April 26, 2011) that took stock of the University of California’s growing applicant pool, pondered the problems of rapid expansion for our grand old Master Plan, and offered a new vision for a University besieged by a state-wide budget crisis. Unfortunately, the new vision seems oddly familiar; it reeks of privatization and President Yudof’s olive oil.

More on that in a moment. The editorial’s opening gambit revolved around record-breaking application numbers for the UC system. So let’s look at the numbers: there were 106,186 freshman applicants across the UC and 72,432 of them were admitted, and of those admitted 41 percent were first-generation college students and 37 percent were from low-income families. This all portends, for the editorial, dramatic and democratic growth across the UC.

But a discomfiting set of facts remains — namely: the facts.

Admissions rates are perfectly meaningless when it comes to the actual size of the entering freshman class. The actual number of students who enroll in the UC, the yield rate, is always much lower. System-wide, the UC has a yield rate in the mid-’40s. So of the 76,526 students admitted in 2009, the latest year for which data are available on the University of California’s StatFinder website, only 34,242 students actually enrolled in the fall.

But even that is misleading because it includes campuses with high yield rates (like Berkeley and Los Angeles) alongside campuses with low yield rates (like Merced and Santa Cruz).

The yield rate on our campus is in the very low 20s, meaning that about 4,000 students enroll out of 20,000 accepted to Irvine — only about one-third of those enrolled are first-generation, and only one-quarter come from families in the bottom 50 percent of wage earners (or, half the population contributes a lowly one-quarter of our student body).

The vast majority of students at Irvine is Asian/Pacific Islander or white and comes from the top 10 percent of wage earners (or, one-tenth of the population contributes half of our student body).

Now, as the editorial pointed out, student fees have been rising sharply over the past several years and more fee hikes are coming down the road soon, class sizes have been growing apace, course offerings have been evaporating, administrative staff have been laid off across the university and everyone from undergrads to graduate students to faculty to service workers are being asked to do more with less and for less.

To briefly review the facts: over the past 20 years the University of California has become less and less accessible to the majority of California’s population, the quality of the education offered has suffered, and the university community has been made to pick up the check.

So, what direction does the editorial offer to manage the twin forces of (supposed) rapid growth and budgetary crisis? I quote: “doesn’t the increasing scarcity of spots for students hold the promise of a more exclusive, more prestigious university? Will a UC degree increase in value because it’s harder to acquire?”

The “road not taken” advocated — if we can call rhetorical questions advocacy — by the editorial is precisely the road that has been taken! “Updating the Master Plan” has become “Privatize the University of California.”

The stupidity of the argument — and here I am using “stupidity” in the very precise sense of being ill-conceived and unwise — is in accepting the terms of debate offered by the UC administration and the state government.

This might sound controversial, but there is no state budget crisis. California’s budget is not “bloated” because of “unsustainable” entitlement programs and social services, and cuts are not “inevitable” by any stretch of the imagination.

Rather, there is a state-wide revenue crisis. The rich — and if you want to know where the rich are, ask one out of every two UCI students to give you their home address — have refused to contribute to the public good for decades, particularly since the 1978 “Tax Revolt.” Wealthy Californians abandoned the public sector and it’s about time the public sector came a-calling.

The University of California system has long been the most prestigious public university in the world, so becoming “more prestigious” is already a moot point, precisely because it was accessible. That low-income and no-income students could receive a world-class education has been the state’s greatest strength.

If we are really going to re-visit the Master Plan, we must have a plan for the master(s). There is no shortage of money for education in the state of California, we only need the will to go and get it.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies and African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.