If UC Berkeley has to cut 3,000 students, should it spare Californians?

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Unless the California Supreme Court or state legislature throws a lifeline at UC Berkeley, the university will have to turn away 3,050 students the campus would otherwise enroll this fall.

That’s the result of Alameda Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman’s decision last year to limit enrollment to the 2020-21 level after Berkeley citizens sued the university, contesting the toll the growth of the Enrollment would require urban services, scarce housing and noise. An appeals court denied UC Berkeley’s request on February 10 to remove that enrollment cap. Now the university expects the state’s highest court to intervene.

As if picking the best and brightest wasn’t hard enough, the elite public university may now have to decide who to turn away from a small group of 9,500 students — the number of high schoolers and community college transfer students that UC Re-enrolling at Berkeley would be a normal year.

At least one legislator with a say on college funding issues has a preference: UC Berkeley really should only admit new Californians and deny entry to out-of-state students.

“If, as a result of this decision, we had to reduce the number of admissions, freshmen, or transfer students at Berkeley, we would absolutely prioritize California residents,” said Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat who chairs the convention’s budget subcommittee on education.

Prioritizing resident students isn’t McCarty’s first solution to the problem — he called Seligman’s ruling “a devastating decision” and “an overstatement.”

If the state Supreme Court doesn’t stop Seligman’s order, lawmakers could seek a solution that could exempt public university enrollment growth from California’s Environmental Quality Act of 1970 – the state law at the center of the university’s legal showdown with community activists.

When California residents get priority

But another remedy is appealing to lawmakers who have pushed the more exclusive UC campuses to better serve California taxpayers. Instead of having UC Berkeley make cuts that would deny admission to about 2,400 residents at existing admissions quotas, state legislatures could choose to prioritize domestic applicants and reject newcomers from abroad outright.

The result: Only about 1,000 Californians would lose a spot in Berkeley’s upcoming Fall 2022 class.

Here’s the math: Without Seligman’s order, UC Berkeley’s 9,500 incoming class would include 2,000 students from out of state, said Dan Mogulof, spokesman for UC Berkeley. If 21% of the incoming class were to come from abroad, and that same percentage applied to the 3,050 students Seligman ordered UC Berkeley to drop, then the university would have to turn away about 2,400 resident students.

If the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom agree, they could insist that all cuts come from non-California applicants.

The UC system and UC Berkeley argue that there is social, academic, and economic value in having a geographically diverse student body. But lawmakers have fought back for years Increase in out-of-state students enrolled at UC campusesspecifically, the three most desirable in the system — UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego — where non-resident students make up between one-fifth and one-fourth of undergraduate enrollments.

The system-wide average is around 17%. Before the Great Recession, only 5% of UC students were out of state. After lawmakers cut state support for UC, the system rebounded through steep tuition increases and a greater reliance on nonresident students, who pay three times the tuition of domestic students. Government support for UCs is slowly recovering. In turn, legislative leaders have pressured UC to make room for more Californians.

McCarty said he would support a move by the Legislature and the Governor to buy out the non-resident students. UC Berkeley would refrain from making room for more Californians if Seligman’s ruling stands.

There are precedents for this. Lawmakers and the governor agreed in last year’s budget that they will pay UC to enroll fewer non-resident students and admit more domestic students. The money for this plan, which Newsom proposed in January, is expected to appear in the state budget, which will be finalized this summer.

It’s unclear if a majority of lawmakers would follow McCarty’s lead. When asked if they would be willing to spare California students from possible enrollment cuts at UC Berkeley, neither the chairman of the convention’s budget committee, Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, nor McCarty’s Senate counterpart, John Laird, a Democrat of Monterey to address the issue directly.

Various remedies, narrow window

Time is of the essence. The university must send out admissions decisions to students by March 24, after sending out a round of admission offers back on February 11. Well, how many students they’ll admit is anyone’s guess.

Also at stake: huge amounts of money. Cutting enrollment by 3,050 students results in a $57 million loss in annual tuition for at least four years, the university wrote in its appeal to the state Supreme Court. Due to a shortage of classroom space and available housing, UC Berkeley argues it cannot enroll an additional 3,000 students in a future incoming class to offset the drop in revenue.

Lawmakers looking for a solution on behalf of UC Berkeley have some leeway. A likely route, McCarty said, is through a “trailer” budget bill that can be introduced and expedited at any time during the legislature.

Meanwhile, there are early signs that the state Supreme Court may accept UC Berkeley’s appeal. The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked litigants in the case for legal material, said Mogulof, spokesman for UC Berkeley.

But even if the university wins, it can still lose once the entire case eventually ends up in the Court of Appeals.

how did we get here

What is at issue is whether a new UC Berkeley college and housing project should be built in compliance with the 1970 Environmental Protection Act. Critics say the university has not provided enough housing for its students. As a result, more students are living off campus, driving up rents, crowding out lower-income residents and increasing homelessness.

Despite its size, UC Berkeley only provides housing for about 10,000 students. Although UC Berkeley wrote in 2005 that its 2020 enrollment would not exceed 33,000 students, the campus actually has more than 45,000 students enrolled — including 32,000 undergraduates.

Students walk down Telegraph Avenue on February 3, 2022 with the Den and Maximino Martinez Commons student housing seen in the background. (Thalia Juarez for CalMatters)

Phil Bokovoy, President of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, who sued UC Berkeley, told the Berkeleyside news agency in August 2021 that “UC is behaving like this in many different places – enforcing its impact on communities and doing nothing about it”.

Seligman’s order marks the first time the state’s environmental law has been used to limit university enrollment at UC, wrote UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore. Some legal scholars and lawmakers have said that if Seligman’s ruling is not reversed, it could be used by other groups to challenge plans for public college or university enrollment growth.

But if the delay in UC Berkeley’s expansion isn’t enough dormitories, the campus’s plans to build such are also in legal limbo. Two other UC Berkeley student housing projects have been challenged by community groups on environmental grounds. Those lawsuits are still pending, said Rebecca Davis, a partner at the law firm representing one of the plaintiff groups, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299.

Last year, lawmakers proposed or approved $7 billion in grants and interest-free loans for colleges to develop campus housing. It is a linchpin for the Legislature, which until recently has not dealt directly with college housing issues.

The Environmental Quality Act has a “stunning consistency” because “new population is considered pollution everywhere,” said Christopher Elmendorf, professor of law at UC Davis. He argues that housing more people in the city of Berkeley is ultimately good for the environment: the city has a dynamic public transportation system and discourages people from living in areas with sensitive habitats or that are prone to fires.

Environment law advocates say so protects communities from pollution and is used as a bogeyman by authorities and developers who want to build apartments.

Prioritization of students if lower court decision stands

At least one member of the governing body that oversees the UC system agrees that UC Berkeley should give priority to Californians if the campus is forced to reduce enrollment.

“Due to the pressure from the state of California on us to increase population, taking away a lot of population slots would hurt us in that goal,” Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza, a member of UC Regents and a Berkeley graduate student, said herself. However, she still wants that some non-resident students are enrolled, such as low-income students and those who are the first in their families to attend college.

UC Berkeley doesn’t yet know how it will prioritize which students who would otherwise be admitted would be denied entry, Mogulof said Tuesday. The campus is also considering more students taking classes entirely online and paying students who are about to graduate to complete them over the summer.

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