The uncertainty stems from the very public clash between university President Janet Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown over the state's role in underwriting the cost of a UC education for qualified Californians. Arguing that Sacramento has failed to fulfil its fiscal obligations, Napolitano plans to raise tuition 5 per cent this fall and expand undergraduate enrolment by 3,000 — one-third of the slots for Californians and two-thirds for students from abroad and out-of-state. The governor, for his part, is threatening to withhold about $120 million in state funds unless the university keeps both its tuition rates and non-resident enrolment flat.
Their competing visions — along with additional plans by top lawmakers — have thrown off the tenuous mechanics of the admissions cycle. Campus officials still are waiting to find out what their overall enrollments are expected to be, a figure they use to calculate how many new students they can accept and then what proportion will be state residents subsidized by taxpayers, system spokeswoman Dianne Klein said.
"Campuses are in a really tough position. We don't have a state budget, so we don't know what the state will provide to the university, and at the same time we have a responsibility to reply to applicants," Klein said. "How is that going to translate? Is it going to be admitting fewer students? Is it going to be putting more students on the wait list ... ? It will not be admitting more students than we reasonably know we have funding for."
The rapidly growing nonresident enrolment is a flashpoint in budget negotiations. Between 2008 and this year, in response to recession-induced budget cuts and what the university says has been insufficient funding to support more in-state students, the share of nonresident undergraduates more than doubled system-wide while in-state enrolment grew by about 1 per cent.
"That is a disparity that every California taxpayer is concerned about, that triple-digit difference," Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a newly elected Republican from Dublin, California, and mother of twins, told the university's chief financial officer during a recent hearing.
At Berkeley and Los Angeles, students from other states and countries make up about one in five undergraduates. They account for one in seven at UC San Diego and nearly one in 10 at the Davis, Irvine and Santa Barbara campuses.
Officials insist they would happily serve more students from California if the state gave them more money, and they point out that UCLA and UC Berkeley have far fewer non-resident students than public colleges such as University of Michigan and University of Virginia. They also say the $640 million in nonresident tuition campuses have generated this year has allowed them to offer more classes and maintain programs benefiting all students. Nonresidents pay $22,878 on top of the $12,192 in tuition and fees for residents.
"It has become an important part of how we meet our budgets," UC Provost Aimee Dorr told the university's governing board last month.
The assurances have done little to persuade residents that their children are not being frozen out of an affordable, quality education close to home — a belief that has students heading out of California for colleges that are easier to get into and less crowded, said Peggy Hock, president of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling.
Hock, who works at a private school near Stanford University, also worries that smaller UC campuses, which enrol the highest percentages of black and Latino undergraduates but currently attract fewer non-residents, are getting short-changed because individual schools get to keep the supplemental tuition paid by their international and out-of-state students.
"We are creating a system of haves and have-nots and exacerbating the perceived pecking order," she said.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, both Democrats like Brown and Napolitano, have proposed raising the tuition surcharge on non-residents by $4,000 and $5,000 respectively next year to stave off tuition increases for Californians and increase the seats available for them.
Fabienne Roth, a UCLA junior from Switzerland who is active in student government, said students like her have become a convenient target.
"I've definitely been told, 'Why are you studying here? Go home,' " Roth said. "They are putting non-residents against residents, and what is frustrating is it doesn't fundamentally solve the issue of funding UC. It's just an easy way out."