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Keeping the Faith at UC

February 22, 1988

No incentive for high-school students can compare with the understanding that the top graduates go directly to the best public university system in the country. But that article of faith in California is being shaken. A record number of freshman applicants who may fill the University of California to overflowing poses hard questions for the state. One answer may be new campuses, but they would take time to build and the state must consider other options in the meantime.

Applications for UC admission are up 2.5% over last year and 36% over 1980. Berkeley and UCLA have long been first choices among college appli-cants; now more students than the campuses can handle are seeking admission to the Riverside, Santa Cruz and Davis as well.

Several UC campuses already tell students with perfect grades that they must at least start else-where. Will all campuses have to say that eventu-ally? The system was designed to admit the top 12.5% of each graduating class. Must it one day draw the line at 5%?

UC President David Gardner said last week that it would take six to eight years to build a campus once the Board of Regents approved the project and the Legislature provided money. The regents should explore proposals for a new campus as soon as possible, gathering suggestions on its location, the number of students that it would accept and what it would cost. Because building or not build-ing is a political decision, a case for new campuses--UC staff members talk about three--must also be made to the Legislature and to the people.

California should be proud that so many of its top students and those of other states do not think be-yond UC campuses when they apply for admission. But the California State University system has excellent programs, too, with the added advantage of campuses that specialize in undergraduates--no small matter for a freshman. Some Cal State campuses already are in demand, but they could attract even more good students if the campuses worked harder to promote their important specialty--the education of undergraduates.

Another way to keep from overwhelming the UC system, at least for a while, is to make community colleges more attractive alternatives for the first two years of higher education. Some community colleges already have excellent programs. Too many, however, show the corrosive effect of long years of tight budgets, excessive reliance on part-time faculty members and inadequate counseling staffs. The time may come when the state will want to require more freshmen and sophomores to attend community colleges until there is room for them at a UC campus. Before it can do that, the state must make community colleges much stronger academically.

There are other ways to postpone what seems an inevitable choice between expansion of the system and rejection of candidates. Campuses can get more use out of classrooms by scheduling more night courses. UC can nudge its students to climb the commencement stairs in four years instead of five. Unless California wants to roll back the clock to a day when college was for an elite few, it must be thinking now not only about temporary solutions but also about adding classrooms, laboratories and eventually campuses. It is called keeping in touch with the future.

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