Some of UC's most diverse campuses get the least funding
Casaundra Caruso was nearly a straight-A student when she transferred from San Bernardino Valley College to UC Riverside in fall 2019. But that quickly — and disastrously — changed.
She was overwhelmed by UC Riverside's fast-paced quarter system and flummoxed by the process of transferring her credits to Riverside. She didn't know how to seek campus help and, as the first in her family to attend college, couldn't ask her parents.
She failed a class for the first time ever and her first-quarter grades plunged to a 2.8 GPA.
"It was miserable," Caruso said. "You're basically thrown into it. I would have had a better experience if UCR had more staff and resources."
Although the University of California considers itself one system, its 286,000 students do not have access to equal resources and services across its 10 campuses. Among them, UC Riverside students fall far behind their peers when it comes to receiving essential services — transfer student support, counseling, academic advising.
Many Riverside facilities are in deep disrepair. Students have endured falling ceiling tiles, leaking roofs, antiquated air systems that emit mold and lab equipment breakdowns. Staff morale has been low and turnover high. Faculty research has been compromised by dysfunctional facilities and airborne contamination.
Yet the Inland Empire campus educates a larger share of needy students — about half are low-income, underrepresented minorities or the first in their families to attend college — than all other campuses except for UC Merced, which is funded at higher levels because of its small size.
The disparities are igniting alarm and allegations by Riverside supporters of de facto racism against the campus. Troubled regents are calling for a closer look at the inequities. State Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside) has asked UC President Michael V. Drake to address the problems.
"This pattern of systemic neglect and chronic underfunding of a university serving a student body composed of at least 85% students of color is troublingly reminiscent of redlining," several UC Riverside department chairs said in a recent letter to Drake and the Board of Regents.
The concerns have prompted UC to launch a new evaluation of how to allocate taxpayer-supported state funding to campuses, the first such review in a decade. But UC finances are complex and the politics thorny, touching on the combustible issues of equity and privilege, class and race.
The impact on UC campuses is potentially huge. Should state dollars be taken from UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego — which raise billions in private fundraising and reap millions in extra revenue from nonresident student tuition — for smaller, struggling campuses with more disadvantaged students like Riverside and Merced? Should every campus stand on its own?
"It's obviously delicate because reallocating funding amongst the campuses means inevitably that there are going to be winners and there are going to be losers," said George Blumenthal, the former UC Santa Cruz chancellor who began lobbying in 2006 to reallocate state funds when he learned his campus was receiving substantially less per student than older campuses like UCLA.
Any solutions are bound to be highly contested. Ideas include sharing the extra tuition that nonresident students pay — which would take the most from UCLA, Berkeley and San Diego — or pegging funding to the number of disadvantaged students enrolled, which would most benefit Riverside, Merced and Irvine.
Nathan Brostrom, UC chief financial officer, said his office is modeling different approaches for Drake, including a needs-based element. "We are firmly committed to a transparent and equitable way to allocate state resources across the system," Brostrom said.
He added that all UC campuses are facing financial challenges since they've added more than 110,000 students over the last two decades without receiving enough state funding to cover their full cost of instruction. And the pandemic has deepened the pain — opening a $340-million deficit at Berkeley, for instance.
But the funding issue has ignited a furor at Riverside. Chancellor Kim Wilcox recently told regents that the campus was considering axing its entire athletic program and curtailing student programs in Washington, D.C., Sacramento and abroad. Stipends for undergraduate research have been cut off.
"We can't just quietly accept this level of inequity," said Melissa M. Wilcox, chair of the religious studies department who helped craft the faculty letter, which has garnered more than 1,200 signatures of support on Change.org. "Our students deserve to have us fight for them."