Kevin Sabo: Why the State’s Audit of UC Matters

Assembly Member Jose Medina speaks at the UC Press Conference yesterday (Jeff Walters / Assembly Democratic Caucus).

Last week, the California State Auditor released a long awaited audit around UC finances, enrollment, and executive compensation, boldly subtitled “[UC’s] Admissions and Financial Decisions Have Disadvantaged California Resident Students”. The series of responses, press conferences, and hearings in Sacramento since the audit’s release did not disappoint fans of political TV drama. But the fireworks are not the only reason UC students should be paying attention.

UC insists that it increased non-resident enrollment to account for losses in state funds that previously helped fund UC. The State Auditor points to lower non-resident admissions standards and non-resident enrollment increases of 432% over the last ten years while resident enrollment has only increased 10%. The evidence presented revealed that non-resident students who are granted admission are given the campus of their choice, while resident students are increasingly being denied admission at the campus of their choice, making them less likely to enroll. This is all despite the fact that state funds have recently began to increase again, but non-resident enrollment practices have not tapered.

None of this is to discount the enormous contributions of non-resident students. The concerns of the audit address systemic issues, not individual applications. We owe it to all of our students to have an honest discussion about the kind of UC these practices create.

First, these practices make UC less diverse. For in-state students of color, the denial of admission to the campus of their choice makes offers from other universities more attractive. This is why we must look critically at UC’s announcement this week that in-state admissions increased by 15% in 2016, with additional increases in Black and Latino admits. Admission does not directly transfer to enrollment, especially when Californians are being crowded out by non-residents at their top choice schools. Out-of-state and international students do not necessarily contribute to UC’s diversity statistics, considering the audit revealed that 91% of international students come to the UC from Asian countries.

Second, these practices exacerbate the capacity issues that we know UC students are experiencing. This year, the UC Student Association has brought attention to two major capacity issues: housing and student mental health services. We do not have enough affordable housing options to serve the students we have. Students are living in unsafe, unstable, and unaffordable homes, if they can find housing at all. In our Counseling and Psychological service centers, it takes twenty-one days on average to get an in-person appointment. This is an unacceptable reality for students. We need to have our basic needs met before we can be expected to succeed academically. UC has pledged to increase enrollment by 10,000 resident students next year. Our resources should go to serving resident students first and not stretching our capacity to accommodate non-resident enrollment.

Third, UC’s current way of doing business is enforcing a system in which its financial practices are not accountable to public concerns. According to the auditor’s report, the UC is not adequately tracking and monitoring individual campus spending of state funds or nonresident tuition revenue. Over the last decade, resident tuition has either increased or been frozen by result of heated negotiations with the State. Meanwhile, UC employees’ gross earnings have increased during that time, top UC executives are bringing home over $400,000 per year, and UC’s budget for recruiting nonresident students quadrupled. Unlike other public entities, the UC’s budget did not respond to the constraints of our recent recession. The systems at play, where non-resident students pay enormous tuition to secure their spot at the UC, simply shifted the bill away from public stakeholders to non-resident students.

Both the UC and State will attest to their commitment to the Master Plan set forth by the Donahoe Act of 1960 to give all Californians the opportunity to attain a higher education. But years of state divestment and UC’s recent reliance on non-resident tuition make me wonder: was the “Master Plan” another casualty of budget cuts? When will we see it be used again as more than a buzzword, but an actual plan for educating the people of California?