Thousands of other students might have jumped at the chance to attend UCLA, but not Michael Rodriguez. He passed up his UC acceptance last year in order to attend California Lutheran University, a less well-known but more intimate private campus in Thousand Oaks.
Rodriguez, who is happy with his choice, said one reason for the decision was a financial aid program Cal Lutheran established specifically to lure students who had been admitted to several top UC campuses. A math and physics major from San Fernando, Rodriguez also said he wanted a more personal setting with small classes and hoped to avoid the overcrowding and other problems state budget cuts are causing at UC schools.
His experience reflects a growing effort by private colleges and universities to turn the budget crisis at California's public campuses to their advantage through savvy marketing and, in some cases, special deals. The private schools are leery of being seen as attacking public higher education, but they also don't want to miss a chance to gain good students while UC and Cal States campuses struggle with reduced enrollment and classes.
"There is a mix of real concern for our friends in the public sector and a recognition that this is a time when we ought to be looking strategically at what we can do," said Jonathan Brown, president of the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities.
Brown said that for years, many of his 75 member institutions have assured potential students that they would receive personal attention at their campuses and get the courses they need to graduate in the traditional four years.
Now, he said, more private schools are putting out similar messages. Even the association's website proclaims that its member schools have no enrollment cuts, unlike the state's public campuses.
Still, with students facing application deadlines for UC and Cal State campuses at the end of the month and private school deadlines typically a month or so later, the results of the recruiting efforts are not yet known. The big hurdle, of course, is tuition at private colleges, which can run seven times that of Cal State and more than triple that of UC.
Private colleges, which enroll about a fifth of California's undergraduates, say they are boosting the amount they give in financial aid even though the recession has hurt their endowments. They also urge prospective students to consider how much it may cost them -- both in tuition and lost income -- if they cannot graduate on time from a UC or Cal State.
Last year, Cal Lutheran established special scholarships, regardless of family income, for students who were also admitted to UCLA or UC Santa Barbara. The grants make the cost of attending the private school the same as attending UC, including room and board.
Last year 20 students took Cal Lutheran's offer, and this fall 27 did, receiving annual aid worth $17,000 on average, according to Rebecca Keenan, the university's associate director of financial aid and scholarships. And for next fall, the campus plans to expand the scholarship offer to those accepted at UC Berkeley and UC Davis.
Cal Lutheran, which enrolls about 3,700 students, benefits by attracting academically strong students who might have gone elsewhere. "We thought about the fact that, with UC cutting enrollment, options for students were getting to be smaller. This makes us an affordable option for more families," Keenan said.
That worked for sophomore Rodriguez. He was unhappy with what he viewed as the crowded, anonymous style of a UCLA reception for admitted applicants. "It felt like a cattle call," he recalled, adding that it underlined his concerns about the state budget cuts.
So he signed up for Cal Lutheran's new financial aid offer.
His mother, Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, said she urges other families to consider the program. "This is a way that changes the dynamic for people who might not look at private schools," she said. "It doesn't mean they are necessarily going to go there. There will always be some parents who want that brand name of UCLA."
The University of San Francisco is taking a different tack. The private Catholic school recently announced that it will offer half-price tuition on lower-division courses at its satellite campuses in San Ramon, Cupertino, Sacramento and Santa Rosa. Advertisements say the program, starting in January, can help "students trapped by the devastating cuts at California's public universities and give them the classes they need to graduate."
The courses, in such subjects as psychology, statistics, U.S. history and Spanish, will count toward a public campus degree, University of San Francisco officials said. But they said it is too soon to estimate enrollment demand, particularly given that tuition, even reduced by 55%, will be $560 a credit, compared to $26 a unit at community colleges.