UC Merced Opens with Fewer Valley Students Than Expected

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(Merced, CA)
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

"Have you taken any placement exams?" " No."

A few weeks ago Veronica Corona was among 200 UC Merced students standing in line to register for freshman orientation at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater. Unlike most of her fellow students, Corona didn't have to travel far to attend the session. The base and the new campus are within a half hour of her home.

"I went to Atwater High School."    

Corona plans to study biology. Because she graduated near the top of her high school class, she had her pick of colleges.

"I got accepted to U-C Santa Barbara, U-C Davis, but I chose this school because I live here and I want to be in the first class."

Corona is the type of student lawmakers and educators had in mind when they decided to build a tenth University of California campus nearly a decade ago. She's bright, dedicated and from the Valley. Many backers of U-C Merced wanted to provide students like Corona an opportunity to get a first-class education in the area where they live.
But for the inaugural class, Corona is the exception not the rule. The majority of students are from beyond the Valley.  Monica Wong is from Berkeley, home of one of the most renowned U-C campuses. She isn't sure what her major will be, but is confident U-C Merced is right for her.

"I wanted a small school, like low teacher to student ratio and private schools were really expensive, so that's why I chose Merced, because right now it's pretty small."

In selling the need for a new UC campus in the region, lawmakers, administrators and lobbyists touted that half of the inaugural class would be from the Valley.  But right now, 30 percent of the "Class of 2009" is from the corridor stretching from Sacramento to Bakersfield.  Only 12 percent of students are from the northern San Joaquin Valley, where the campus is located. 

So why aren't there more Valley students enrolled at UC Merced? Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey says one reason may be that they just aren't as prepared for rigorous U-C standards as students from other parts of the state. 

"Where we fall down is on the number of students who take AP courses, the high level courses and the number of students who take the S-A-T."

Tomlinson-Keasey says one solution is to get Valley students prepared for college before starting high school.

"We basically have to get them into algebra by eighth grade. If they aren't in algebra by eighth grade we see that their math and science goes down the path that isn't going to get them to a university after high school."

Another challenge for UC Merced is competition for the region's best and brightest from colleges with ample endowments and plenty of scholarships. Carol Whiteside of the non-partisan Great Valley Center says the school must offer more scholarships for local students.

"Highly qualified kids from this region, especially if they're non-white or from underrepresented groups, are heavily recruited by first-class universities all over the nation. Kids get scholarships to Stanford or to Harvard."

Some suggest U-C Merced could increase the number of Valley students by simply admitting more applicants from the region. It's not that easy. California no longer has an affirmative action policy in higher education. Admission to the prestigious U-C system is based on academic merit. Gender, race and geography aren't factored into the admissions process.

Meanwhile, administrators insist the percentage of local student enrollment will increase with the passing of time. But will the public be patient? 

"I think that's a big issue right now and isn't one that's going to be solved anytime soon. "

Joe Kieta is the Editor of the Merced Sun-Star newspaper. He says the school was promoted and sold to residents as a benefit to the valley. As a result, he believes administrators will feel pressure from local and state officials to meet the 50 percent mark.

"I think if this campus is going to be successful, long term, it's going to have involve more students from the Valley in the future. It's something that I think is going to be the key to unlocking the true benefit of U-C Merced."

Beyond the current talk of enrollment, U-C Merced, its faculty and future graduates are expected to become a major influence on the Central Valley. Carol Whiteside of the Great Valley Center.

"Over time it's going to attract spin-off businesses. It's going to bring people with different educational aspirations here. It's going to be an economic engine. It's going to provide new opportunities and new technologies for the region."

For current UC Merced students, the future is now. Brian Coaxum of Sacramento is glad he can study psychology at Merced without being just a number to faculty and staff.

"My older brother goes to U-C Berkeley and he tells me the classroom competition at Berkeley in general is extremely overwhelming. And at this school I'll have the opportunity to find my own identity."