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UC Riverside is Fed Up With Being the Consolation Prize for Students

The school is seeking the respect afforded peers such as UCLA and UC Berkeley.

May 27, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

This spring the University of California at Riverside accepted more than 22,000 high school seniors for the coming fall's freshman class.

But relatively few, about 16.5%, are expected to enroll. And many other top-notch California students didn't bother applying to Riverside in the first place.

So it goes at UCR: It often is praised for its ethnic diversity, but bedeviled by an image as the last-choice campus for applicants to the academically prestigious UC system.

Gesturing to the crowd at a recent afternoon campus concert, Kahlil Ford, editor in chief of the student newspaper, the Highlander, said: "I guarantee if you went around to just about any of the people in this quad and asked them where they had wanted to go, it was UCLA."

Upward of 40% of the high school seniors accepted by UCLA and UC Berkeley decide to go there, more than twice the rate at the Riverside campus.

Overcoming that problem is a top goal of UC Riverside's first-year chancellor, France A. Cordova. She hopes to boost the school's academic stature so that one day, "the students who apply here are dying to get into UC Riverside, for all sorts of reasons."

Population trends work in the school's favor, Cordova said. California's college-age population is surging, and several UC campuses are nearing their enrollment limits. As a result, the competition to get into UC Riverside is expected to intensify within a few years, as it has at other UC schools.

As it stands, the school accepts anyone who meets UC standards, which aim to capture the top 12.5% of high school seniors in the state. The other UC campuses, particularly UC Berkeley and UCLA, are more selective.

Narrowing the gap with other UC schools will be difficult. The average SAT score for high school seniors admitted to this fall's freshman class is about 1120 out of a possible 1600, versus 1333 for UCLA.

The university's research reputation lags the other UCs as well.

Riverside is one of just two general UC campuses -- UC Santa Cruz being the other -- not in the Assn. of American Universities, a 62-member group judged to be North America's leading research schools.

Even the many students and visitors impressed with the school acknowledge that it has been dogged by an image as gloomy as the smog that drapes the Inland Empire in August.

Pleasantly Surprised

"People told me it was the armpit of the UCs," said Lauren Croom, an 18-year-old high school senior from Long Beach who has narrowed her choice to UC Riverside and Howard University, a historically black school in Washington. Croom, who visited UC Riverside last month, said she was pleasantly surprised. She liked the campus' "warm atmosphere."

Luring people who don't know the campus can be tricky.

Julie Neilson, college counselor at Jordan High School in Watts, said when she suggests UC Riverside to her students, "Most of them say, 'I think I can get into a little bit better school.' "

"UC Riverside is a good school," she added, "but it takes a long time to lose the reputation from being easier to get into."

Ann Valdez, Croom's counselor in a magnet program at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, said UC Riverside's location hurts its appeal too.

"Santa Barbara has the ocean. UCLA has Westwood, Valdez said. "People want to go someplace where there's something besides just the school."

But with the boom in the college-age population, UCR's enrollment is expected to increase dramatically -- from 15,900 this year to 25,000 by 2015. Cordova sees that growth as an asset because it will yield a steady flow of state dollars to hire more professors and build up promising programs.

Targets for expansion include the management school and a variety of scientific fields: agricultural genomics, environmental and computer science, chemistry and nanotechnology.

Although the campus has suffered growing pains in recent years -- it is covered with construction projects -- many students prize the atmosphere.

On campus, "I see people who I know, which is really nice. It's not like if I was at, maybe, UCLA or another really big institution, where you're just a Social Security number. Here, professors really try to get to know you," said Aisha Nnoli, a student in UC Riverside's highly regarded biomedical sciences program.

Some undergraduates also cite opportunities to work with faculty on research projects, an option not as common at bigger schools.

Noted for Diversity

Faculty and students say the diversity of the student body -- 42% Asian American, 23% Latino and 6% black -- is refreshing. They also appreciate the socio-economic mix: Nearly one in four students comes from families earning less than $25,000 a year.

To win over more students, UC Riverside started in the mid-1990s holding receptions every April for prospective freshmen. Although many schools organize similar gatherings, UC Riverside holds more than most -- seven this year -- and makes a point of having its chancellor attend.

With students such as Croom, the efforts appear to be helping.

"I see all of these good programs there, and a lot of stuff that interests me," she said. "I don't know why there was such a negative connotation."

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