Sather Tower at UC Berkeley.
UC Berkeley could be forced by a court order to roll back enrollment, forcing it to slash its incoming fall class by one-third, or 3,050 students.
(Josh Edelson / For The Times)
Higher Ed

UC Berkeley could be forced to cut enrollment by 3,050 seats under high-court decision

The California Supreme Court declines to lift an enrollment cap on UC Berkeley, which might have to cut its incoming fall class by one-third. Thursday’s decision 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.

The California Supreme Court on Thursday declined to lift an enrollment cap on UC Berkeley, leaving one of the nation’s most popular campuses scrambling to cut its incoming fall class by one-third, or 3,050 seats, just weeks before it was set to release admission decisions.

The high court rejected the University of California’s appeal to stay a lower court ruling issued in August that froze enrollment at Berkeley until the campus more thoroughly examined the impact of its burgeoning growth on housing, homelessness and noise. The court left intact a ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman, who capped enrollment while the lawsuit filed by Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods proceeds.

The justices who voted to deny UC’s appeal did so without comment.

Justices Goodwin H. Liu and Joshua P. Groban, however, sided with UC, noting the “acute loss” to prospective students, the negative economic impact on the city of Berkeley with fewer students and the university’s potential loss of $57 million in tuition, which could “undermine California’s interests in expanding access to education.”

But Liu wrote that the denial “need not be the end of the road” for students, noting that the university may renew its request for a stay in the Court of Appeal or the parties may negotiate a settlement.

In a statement, UC Berkeley said it was “extremely disheartened” by Thursday’s ruling but vowed to continue fighting. The university is seeking potential legislative solutions and also announced it was working to mitigate the harm to prospective students through such measures as increasing online enrollment and asking some new students to delay enrollment until January 2023. Berkeley also said it would prioritize California residents for fall in-person undergraduate enrollment, both first-year and transfer students.

“We hope to have detailed information about the extent to which the university can mitigate the impact of the court decision by [Friday],” UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said. “We are doing everything in our power to finalize the details so they can be shared with the public.”

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.

Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, said in a statement Thursday that he and his group have long sought to settle the case with Berkeley in exchange for an agreement to a legally binding commitment to increase housing before expanding enrollment and looked forward to meeting with UC President Michael V. Drake to explore options. The group told California students it was “as disappointed as they are that UC has tried to use them as pawns in UC’s attempts to avoid mitigating the impacts from the massive enrollment increases over the past few years.”

On Thursday afternoon, the University of California Board of Regents approved a plan that would increase enrollment at...

The fierce court battle has drawn national attention — and action by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently weighed in with an amicus letter urging the high court to lift the cap while the litigation proceeds to avoid harm to thousands of hard-working students and undermining the state’s interest in increasing college access.

“We can’t let a lawsuit get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students who are our future leaders and innovators,” Newsom said in a statement. “I urge the Supreme Court to step in to ensure we are expanding access to higher education and opportunity, not blocking it.”

Newsom’s amicus letter, submitted by state Attorney General Rob Bonta, told the state Supreme Court that expanding access to college — particularly high-demand campuses in the renowned UC system — was a top state priority. Newsom described it as a “keystone” of his higher-education vision on college access, affordability, equity and innovation. UC Berkeley in particular provided an “unmatched opportunity for low-income students, students from diverse backgrounds, and transfer students to access a high-quality education at a prestigious university at public-school tuition rates,” the letter said.

Bokovoy has dismissed these assertions as hyperbole, saying that California students could be protected by cutting admissions of international and out-of-state students. He also said the university is to blame for the crisis by not adequately reviewing the impact of its growth and failing to provide enough housing for students.

An amicus brief in support of Bokovoy’s group called Newsom’s assertions of grave harm to students “an overblown sound bite” and purely speculative. The brief by Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan, a community group opposing the campus’ long-range development plan, said limiting enrollment would give UC an incentive to “expeditiously and lawfully” conduct the new environmental review ordered by Seligman.

In 2005, the university projected in its long-range development plan that it would enroll 33,450 students by 2020. Bokovoy’s group learned in 2016 that Berkeley had exceeded that level by about 30% and two years later sued to force the campus to review the environmental impact of more than 11,000 additional students.

Students walk past the Doe Memorial Library at UC Berkeley.
(Thalia Juarez for CalMatters)

Berkeley conducted the review, finding no significant impact. That prompted the neighborhood group and the city of Berkeley to demand a redo, arguing in a 2019 lawsuit that the campus review was inadequate and the conclusion wrong. In August 2021, Seligman ruled in their favor, ordering Berkeley to perform a more thorough analysis and freeze enrollment at 2020-21 levels until it was completed.

UC appealed that ruling in October, but it wasn’t until January that it asked the appellate court to stay the enrollment cap, because, it said in court papers, it had mistakenly believed the stay would automatically occur. Two weeks ago, the appellate court rejected UC’s appeal for a stay, prompting the university to turn to the high court.

UC Berkeley said the 2020-21 enrollment level was abnormally low because the pandemic had caused an unanticipated drop of more than 800 students who chose to take time off. To meet that level, the campus said it would have to reduce admission offers to first-year and transfer students by 5,100 for fall 2022 and cut back financial aid and reduce campus services due to a loss of $57 million in tuition revenue.

Berkeley is one of the nation’s most applied-to universities, admitting 14.5% of 112,820 first-year students and 38% of 22,188 transfer applicants in fall 2021. In a typical year, the campus admits 21,000 first-year and transfer students and enrolls about 9,500 of them.

The governor’s entry into the court fight underscored the enormous stakes at hand. Others joined the full-court legal press last week, with the city of Berkeley and the Bay Area Council, a public policy advocacy group of business leaders, filing their own amicus briefs supporting the UC Board of Regents’ appeal.

UC, in its appeal to the high court, said the enrollment cap would prove particularly “catastrophic” to the top-rated public research university’s goal to admit more low-income, underrepresented students. That’s because cutting the incoming class by one-third would force the campus to reassess its selections among 150,000 first-year applicants and delay the release of admission decisions — giving low-income students less time for financial advising before the May 1 commitment deadline.

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Newsom said the state so values expanding college access that it allocated $47.1 billion for higher education, the largest single-year investment, in the last enacted budget. In his proposed 2022-23 budget, Newsom calls for funding to increase UC seats for California students by more than 7,000, including hundreds more seats annually at high-demand UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego, from 2023-24 through 2026-27. The California State University system would receive funding for 14,000 additional seats during that time.

UC and Cal State have agreed, in turn, to close equity gaps in graduation, expand access for transfer students, improve college affordability and provide more graduates for the state’s high-need fields of climate action, healthcare, education and technology.

“The State’s public higher education system drives equitable and upward mobility, helping first-generation and lower-income Californians realize their full educational and professional potential,” Newsom’s letter said. “It also prepares the workforces needed to secure the state’s current and future economic success and confront its hardest challenges, including the climate crisis and global pandemics.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.