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An 'A' for Improvement : Irvine Campus Is Shifting From 'Second Choice' to Top Notch

BEYOND 2000: Orange County, UC Irvine


With two Nobel Prizes under its belt and recent appearances on magazine listings of the best colleges, UC Irvine has been cementing its reputation in academe as an up-and-comer.

"UCI is definitely on the rise," said Steve Sample, president of the University of Southern California, who was chair of the American Assn. of Universities when UCI was admitted two years ago. "UCI is taking its place as one of the 50 leading research universities in America."

Orange County's UC campus is recovering from its national embarrassment over the fertility clinic scandals of a few years back and now stands to ride the wave of high-tech and biotechnology research, especially with double-digit increases in private donations, much of it coming from those sectors. Applications and SAT scores of incoming freshmen are up; its rapidly growing computer sciences department is now the largest in the UC system.

"UCI is a miracle," said Jack Peltason, former UCI chancellor and former president of the UC system. "There are not too many places in the world where you'll find a university of this size and quality that's only 33 years old."

Yet beyond the world of academic observers, UCI continues to be stymied by an image that it still is, simply, second best: a solid, largely commuter school for kids who lacked the money for private schools and the mind-boggling scores needed for Berkeley or UCLA.

"UCI was my second choice," said 18-year-old UCI freshman Tamar Jaghalian of Pasadena, echoing the sentiments of many classmates. "I wanted to go to UCLA, but I didn't get in."

Aside from its relative youth next to such giants as Berkeley and UCLA, Irvine also struggles with location, location, location--suburban Orange County, to most students, simply is not a glam place to spend some of their freest and most exciting years.

More Competition, Prestige Expected

Still, bolstered by technology support money and waves of stellar students knocking at the doors of the relatively low-cost UC system, top administrators say the new millennium is offering Irvine exactly what it needs to hit the big leagues: time.

During the next couple of decades, the entire UC system is expected to grow tremendously, both in size from a huge bulge of students and in prestige as those students seek a limited number of spots at the state's most elite higher-education system.

Top students are expected increasingly to head to UC as the costs of private college education continue to rise.

Already, many students with A- averages feel discouraged about their chances for admission to the very top UC schools, and second-choice schools such as Irvine are getting pickier about the students they will accept. Educators see this eventually trickling down to the least popular UC campuses. They see the day, not all that far off, when a solid B+ student will be hard put to find a place in the system.

"The competition will be fierce," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose. "All the schools will want the cream of the crop."

Many highly qualified high school students may find themselves turned away by the UC system, said Jerry Hayward, co-directer of Policy Analysis for California Education, based in Sacramento.

"There are many more students who apply than are places for them," he said. "The pattern is already happening at UCLA and Berkeley, and it will happen at the other campuses of the university as well."

UCI stands to benefit from this systemwide prestige.

By any account, what the school has achieved in little more than three decades is remarkable. In fact, its greatest recognition has come in the last three years, since it turned 30.

"It's a remarkable story in American higher education that a new institution starting from scratch would have the kind of distinction they've established," said UC's President, Richard Atkinson.

The Nobels awarded in 1995 are the linchpin for the school's higher profile of late, said UCI Chancellor Ralph J. Cicerone. The prizes were awarded to faculty members F. Sherwood Rowland for discovering how chlorofluorocarbons were eating a hole in the ozone layer, and the late Frederick Reines for his work with the neutrino, a subatomic particle.

"Most people--especially out East--hadn't heard of UCI before the Nobels," Cicerone said. "That made a huge dent."

UCI's champions also point out the smattering of rankings during the last couple of years that placed UCI at the top of the heap, including a U.S. News & World Report ranking that lauds UCI as the eighth-best public university in the country. Its creative writing program ranked sixth among all schools, public or private.

UCI first showed up in the rankings in 1995 as 48th out of all universities, public or private. The next year, it jumped to 37th; this year, it was listed 36th.

Although many academics are skeptical about the value of the magazine's rankings, they are widely read and closely watched--and seem to have given the school's image a big boost.

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