Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Telling the truth about UC

By Robert Birgeneau

When institutions are under stress, they often find themselves under attack by those responsible for the stress in the first place. This vicious circle is dramatically illustrated by the recent state auditor's report that heavily criticizes the University of California for many supposed faults, especially admissions policies and administrative inefficiencies.

I was taken aback by the auditor's accusations, wondering if the facts had changed so dramatically since I stepped down as the Chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2013. They have not.

An especially controversial issue is admissions for California non-residents to UC as a whole but most especially to the flagship schools, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The auditor states that many non-residents are being admitted who are less qualified than California resident admits. So what are the facts, specifically for UCLA and UC Berkeley?

Because UCLA and UC Berkeley practice holistic admissions, direct comparison of qualifications is difficult. However, there is one metric that is universal, namely SAT scores, because all applicants, in-state, out-of-state, and international, take the same SAT tests. For California students applying to UCLA and UC Berkeley, the average SAT scores, out of a possible 2400, are 1741 and 1809. For California students who gain admission to UCLA and UC Berkeley, the corresponding scores are 1993 and 2075 respectively.

For students who are admitted to UCLA and Berkeley from other states, the average SAT scores are 2153 and 2237 respectively. For international students who are admitted, the scores are 2173 and 2201 respectively. These are all much higher than those for California residents. Clearly, the non-resident students are superbly well qualified academically, and they raise the standard for UC undergraduates significantly. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not correct.

When I stepped down as Chancellor at Berkeley in 2013, the number of students from California was the same as when I started in 2004. The additional non-resident students were purely additive; they did not displace California residents. The only reason that we could take on these extra students was that their tuition and fees covered the actual cost of their education, unlike CA resident undergraduates who are egregiously underfunded by the state.

Entirely lost in the public discussion is the value that geographic diversity brings to the classrooms, residences, coffee shops and playing fields. I remember dramatically one conversation I had with a group of freshmen at a welcoming event in the autumn of 2009. We were discussing the financial crisis which had overtaken California in 2008. At one point one of the students got a wry smile on his face and said: "Well, I am from Greece. Let me tell you what a real financial crisis is!" He then proceeded to do just that. Even if the California students never took an economics class, they had learned a lot about international economics.

The value of geographic diversity is not just intellectual. The resources provided most especially by international students help finance the education of in-state students. Indeed, those resources made it possible for Berkeley to become the first public university in the United States to offer comprehensive financial aid to in-state middle class students. This is one of the reasons that UC Berkeley students graduate with among the lowest student debts in the nation.

The auditor's report is correct in pointing out the impact of out-of-state admits on the ethnic diversity of our student body. This is solvable, but it will require a change in the policies of the university system to ensure that adequate financial aid is available to out-of-state students from low- and middle- income families.

Finally, the auditor criticizes the University of California for administrative inefficiencies, implying that the cost of higher education could be significantly lower except for wasteful spending. Coming from an employee of the state government, this attack is highly ironic. It feels like a player on the 76ers telling Stephen Curry how to play basketball.

Of course, any institution can become more efficient. As University President Janet Napolitano has clearly explained, the system's campuses have made significant progress on this front and more is to come. Right now, however, tuition and fees at UCLA and UC Berkeley are less than one-third of those at USC and Stanford, while we provide a comparable quality education to our undergraduates. What other institutions in California are that cost effective?

Robert J. Birgeneau

Silverman Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Public Policy

Chancellor Emeritus, UC Berkeley