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To save UC, cut enrollment

Editorial

The options are all grim, but the priority must be to maintain the system's prestigious standing.

January 21, 2011

In response to Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to slash $500 million from the University of California budget, UC President Mark G. Yudof said this week that he might be forced to flout the state's 50-year-old Master Plan for Higher Education by reducing enrollment by thousands of students who otherwise would qualify for entrance. It's unclear whether Yudof meant that as a strategic threat or as a plan, but we're afraid it may have to be the latter. As dear as Californians hold the master plan, and as painful as it would be to deny California students admission at a moment when the U.S. government is stressing the importance of producing more college graduates, it's more important to preserve the educational excellence and worldwide reputation of UC.

With state finances as grim as they are, there no longer can be talk of shielding higher education. All that can be done at this point is to minimize the long-term damage. For the University of California, the crown jewel in the state educational system, the priority must be to maintain its prestigious standing, which keeps California's most talented students in the state and acts as an economic machine, attracting entrepreneurial minds and creating jobs.

Further big increases in tuition would turn California's elite students toward other colleges, including private institutions where merit scholarships would bring the cost of a college education close to that of UC. Although some cuts will certainly be necessary, major program reductions could harm the university's reputation. Accepting more out-of-state students who pay full tuition is a good interim solution, but the university is already doing that, and it's a strategy with limited growth potential. Only a few campuses have the cachet to draw outside students.

Compared with those options, reducing enrollment begins to sound less draconian. It can always be increased quickly in rosier times. Losses of big-name professors and popular programs are harder to recover from; it can take decades to rebuild a weakened reputation.

Of course, part of what plagues the university are contracted pay raises that will increase costs at a time when few if any state employees should be getting raises. UC should be asking its employees to prevent layoffs by sharing some sacrifice. This also is the wrong time for the university to be moving toward a more expensive and subjective "holistic" admissions system, when too many high-achieving students already face the prospect of being rejected.

Reduced admissions to UC would create a domino effect throughout higher education in California. Students rejected at UC would knock at the doors of the California State University system, which faces equally daunting cuts. That in turn would push more students into the community colleges, where Brown has recommended a $10-per-unit fee increase, or about $300 a year for a full-time student. The community colleges are the one system in which fee increases are overdue; even at the higher price, they would be the least expensive in the nation.

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