The Magazine

Boondoggle U.

With taxpayers struggling to support the University of California, why did the state build a tenth campus in the middle of nowhere?

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Merced, California

Photo of The University of California, Merced, in December 2004

The University of California, Merced, in December 2004

AP / Gary Kazanjian

"The middle of nowhere.” That’s the phrase I heard from several Californians when I told them that I was writing an article about UC Merced, the newest and most geographically remote of the state’s 10-campus chain of academically elite, research-focused public universities. Opening in 2005 at a construction cost of $500 million, embroiled in environmental controversies despite its desire to showcase itself as a “green” campus, and enrolling to date only 5,200 students out of the 25,000 projected to materialize by 2030, the University of California, Merced, located about 100 miles inland in the state’s searing and economically depressed rural interior, is the most financially and politically precarious member of the UC system.

It is precarious at a precarious time. The broke (and some say bankrupt) state of California, bedeviled by a $13 billion deficit plus another $700 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for its 225,000 employees, cut funding for the entire UC system by $750 million this year (the system’s overall annual budget is about $20 billion, not counting sponsored research and teaching hospitals). The brand new UC Merced, with a $100 million annual budget, got an exemption from the across-the-board cuts entailing layoffs, furloughs, and program eliminations at the other nine campuses, but that only seems to have exacerbated hard feelings within the UC system. Over the past couple of years, as California has spiraled downward into a 12 percent unemployment-generating recession, faculty and administrators at the more prestigious and prosperous campuses have either called openly for UC Merced’s closure or hinted at withdrawing their own well-endowed campuses from the state system and going private.

Although applications for freshman slots at UC Merced have risen impressively over the past two years, and the campus is currently enrolled to the brim in terms of classroom space, it still ranks last among the 10 UC campuses as California high school seniors’ academic destination of choice. UC Merced accepts nearly 80 percent of those who apply, and it is the only one of the 10 campuses to remain in the UC system’s “referral pool.” Under California law all high school seniors in the state who either rank in the top 9 percent of applicants as measured by grades and standardized-test scores, or in the top 9 percent of their own high school classes, are entitled to automatic admission to one of the UC campuses. Beyond that minimum threshold, the admissions process can be highly competitive, with the system’s flagship campus, the 36,000-student UC Berkeley, and its most sought-after campus, the 40,000-student, Beverly Hills-adjacent UCLA, garnering the most applications and able to pick and choose among their would-be freshmen, accepting perhaps one out of four.

The applicants rejected by the UC campuses where they applied go into the referral pool, for admission to safety-net campuses with empty freshman slots. For several years UC Riverside, located in the heart of the Inland Empire smog belt 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, shared reserve-pool status with UC Merced at the bottom of the heap. Nowadays, UC Riverside has plenty of takers. It is reasonably close to L.A., and the recession makes its $12,000-a-year tuition (standard at all UC campuses) look like a bargain compared with that of private colleges in Southern California. That leaves UC Merced as “the Rodney Dangerfield of the system,” as one professor whom I interviewed phrased it. Indeed, until UC Merced slightly altered its acceptance process last year to focus on students who expressed actual interest in attending, it was not unusual for high school seniors feeling depressed because they didn’t get into Berkeley to find themselves surprised by “Congratulations!” letters from a campus of whose existence, much less location, they might not have been entirely aware.

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