The UC Berkeley campus
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Higher Ed

Court could force UC Berkeley to cut 3,000 undergraduate seats, freeze enrollment

UC Berkeley could be forced to slash its incoming undergraduate class by one-third, or 3,050 seats, and forgo $57 million in lost tuition. The court-imposed freeze could have implications for other UC campuses, including UC Santa Cruz, although at Berkeley, the campus exceeded in its own projected enrollment cap, a fact that might set it apart.

UC Berkeley, one of the nation’s most highly sought after campuses, could be forced to slash its incoming fall 2022 class by one-third, or 3,050 seats, and forgo $57 million in lost tuition under a recent court order to freeze enrollment, the university announced Monday.

The university’s projected reduction in freshmen and transfer students came in response to a ruling last August by an Alameda County Superior Court judge who ordered an enrollment freeze and upheld a Berkeley neighborhood group’s lawsuit that challenged the environmental impact of the university’s expansion plan. Many neighbors are upset by the impact of enrollment growth on traffic, noise, housing prices and the natural environment.

The University of California Board of Regents appealed the ruling and asked that the order to freeze enrollment be stayed while the appellate process proceeds. Last week, an appellate court denied that request. The regents on Monday appealed that judgment to the California Supreme Court.

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“This court-mandated decrease in enrollment would be a tragic outcome for thousands of students who have worked incredibly hard to gain admission to Berkeley,” UC Berkeley said in a statement. “If left intact, the court’s unprecedented decision would have a devastating impact on prospective students, university admissions, campus operations, and UC Berkeley’s ability to serve California students by meeting the enrollment targets set by the state of California.”

Tensions have only recently tightened in cities that are home to UC campuses throughout the state given the heightened affordability crisis. UC Santa Cruz and the city of Santa Cruz have long battled over such issues, with the question arising anew as the campus received approval of its new Long Range Development Plan, which permits the campus to grow to 28,000 students by 2040. Under the expiring 2005 plan, the campus pledged to enroll no more than 21,000 students by 2020. Unlike UC Berkeley, which has exceeded its own LRDP projection, UCSC is still under its cap, with about 18,600 students, of whom 9,300 live in campus housing.

Still, those long involved in the town/gown housing issues locally are sure to be watching carefully how the California Supreme Court rules as the Alameda County Superior Court decision is appealed to it.

The campus said the loss of $57 million in tuition revenue would reduce available financial aid, squeeze campus operations and possibly limit class offerings.

Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which filed the lawsuit, blamed the crisis on the university, saying the campus has failed to build enough housing to accommodate its growing student population. He added that UC Berkeley could manage the court-ordered enrollment freeze without hurting California students by reducing admission offers to international and out-of-state students.

“It’s irresponsible for Berkeley to add 3,000 new students in the midst of a terrible housing crisis,” Bokovoy said.

The furor underscores the conflicting and growing pressures on UC over enrollment. Legislators, families and equity advocates are pushing campuses to increase seats for California students, particularly those who are still underrepresented in the nation’s premier public university research system. Many policymakers say the state’s economic future is at stake, as California is facing a looming shortage of 1.1 million workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 to meet its workforce needs.

Meanwhile, demand for UC seats continues to rise. As more California high school students meet UC eligibility requirements and barriers to entry fall, such as UC’s 2020 elimination of SAT and ACT scores for admission, UC applications are skyrocketing. The record-shattering applications for fall 2021, however, led to major heartbreak in the spring, when campuses sent out acceptance letters: Although the UC admitted 132,353 freshman applicants, an 11% increase over the previous year, more than 71,000 were denied admission, including nearly 44,000 Californians. Admission rates fell at seven of the nine undergraduate campuses — dropping at UCLA to 9.9% for California freshmen applicants.

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And future trends look bleak. The number of students who meet UC and California State University admission requirements but can’t enroll in a four-year institution because of a shortfall of seats could nearly double from about 73,000 students in 2018-19 to 144,000 by 2030, according to a study by the College Futures Foundation.

UC Berkeley’s announcement came during an Assembly budget hearing on higher education Monday featuring UC President Michael V. Drake, along with California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro and California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. Drake told committee members that slashing the incoming class would have a “devastating impact” on the 3,000 students who would otherwise be admitted and continue to hobble the university going forward by reducing available funds for classes and other campus services.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who has pushed UC to expand access to California students, called the Berkeley news “disappointing” and noted that legislators have been “listening to the concerns of these college towns” by launching a new $2-billion fund to help public campuses build student housing. Asked by McCarty what legislators could do to help, Drake said the state might examine the reach of environmental reviews to control enrollment.

“We’re entirely interested in protecting the environmental quality of the communities in which we live, and those things need to be balanced,” Drake said.

Berkeley has been ordered to freeze student enrollment at the 2020-21 level of 42,347. To get to that number — which is 3,050 fewer seats than planned for fall 2022 — the campus said it would need to reduce admission offers by least 5,100 to account for the share who decline the acceptance. Berkeley argues that freezing enrollment at 2020 levels is inappropriate because the pandemic caused it to drop “dramatically and unexpectedly” that year as students took time off.

The ruling by Judge Brad Seligman came in a lawsuit by Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, which has filed numerous legal challenges to campus growth plans since 2018, including the latest project to add academic space and about 30 additional beds for graduate students. The group asserted that UC Berkeley failed to consider reducing enrollment to avoid adverse environmental impacts and, since 2005, has added 11,000 students beyond the 2020 target laid out in the campus long-range development plan.

The group said most of Berkeley’s excess enrollment has consisted of nonresident students, who pay higher tuition, and that the burgeoning numbers are taxing the city’s resources, including housing, police and fire services, water and park space, and contributing to noise and trash.

Berkeley, in its environmental impact study, argued there was no need to consider reductions because enrollment growth in previous years had had “no significant environmental impacts.”

Seligman disagreed. He also ordered UC regents to void for now their approval of the campus project to create more academic space and housing for faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

In its appeal, UC asked the state high court to stay the order to freeze enrollment by 5 p.m. Friday because the campus is now assessing 150,000 first-year applicants and is scheduled to release most admission offers March 24. The enrollment cap will impose “immediate, significant, and burdensome changes to the UC Berkeley admissions process that could only be achieved at this point by delaying sending acceptance letters,” UC said.

The university added that low-income, under-represented students would be disproportionately affected by a delay because they would have less time to obtain adequate financial assistance counseling in time for the May 1 commitment deadline.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.