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Casey Kovarik: UC Merced expansion prioritizes construction over student services

(Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Casey Kovarik

Dec. 3, 2015 1:59 a.m.

With enrollment increasing over the next five years, students at the University of California are about to learn, painfully, that hindsight really is 20-20.

Recently, UC Merced received full approval from the UC Regents to nearly double the campus’ capacity by 2020. The budget for the Merced 2020 Project in the action item submitted to and approved by the regents is more than $1.1 billion.

While students at other UC campuses may feel removed from Merced’s expansion, the cost of it will affect all students in the system. Costs that are unaccounted for leave students in the dark about whether the money will eventually be generated from their tuition or removed from their aid.

Just a week before approving the Merced plan, UC President Janet Napolitano proposed to increase enrollment over the next three years by 10,000 across the nine undergraduate UC campuses to accommodate the surge in demand for admission to the University. After approving the proposal, the regents also voted to stop providing need-based financial aid to incoming nonresident students to help fund the cost.

The action item approved by the regents includes budget plans to expand the campus’ infrastructure, but does not include the costs of salaries and wages of more faculty and staff or other student support resources.

Patti Waid, assistant vice chancellor for University Communications at UC Merced, said that it is too early to estimate the cost of faculty and student resources because the University is unsure how many students and faculty members will be added to the campus. She added the University will have to make those adjustments as they see how the increase in enrollment plays out.

While it is reasonable not to know exactly how many faculty will be hired at this point, there should be estimates and budgets for every aspect of the expansion moving forward. Spending money on construction without a plan, or at least a good idea of how much it will cost, doesn’t make sense.

It is naive to believe money will be readily available when the need comes, especially as funding is difficult to come by in California right now. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized the need for caution and restraint in keeping the state’s budget balanced. The state’s precarious position means the UC cannot rely on it for multibillion-dollar projects that exceed its normal spending, which is why it is important to begin finding funds for all costs of both the UC-wide enrollment and UC Merced construction expansions as soon as possible.

And in the case that the UC does wait for state funding, there could be disastrous consequences. Let’s not forget the lessons of the recent past. In order to receive enough extra funding to freeze tuition last May, Napolitano had to bring the rest of the student body to the brink of uproar and threaten increases across the board for all students.

And it worked a little. However, the stress and brinksmanship involved was healthy for no one. Now, imagine the same scenario, but with thousands of basic educational services at stake. That’s what it will look like if the UC doesn’t prioritize funding now.

Waiting is not an option. The current increasing demand for admission to California public institutions means that expansion is necessary, despite the less-than-ideal funding.

These plans are necessary to accommodate the undoubtedly increasing size of the UC’s population – but they are extremely expensive and neglect current student needs. The value of a UC education will be greatly diminished if funding for student resources aren’t prioritized.

Students can be prioritized by ensuring there is funding for faculty, staff and student support resources, which currently aren’t included in the Merced plan. In addition, while $25 million from the state partially funds the extra 10,000 students to be enrolled systemwide, a substantial portion of the resources needed have yet to be fleshed out.

Rather than generally stating that both expansions will be funded by the state, the University and philanthropy, the UC needs to acknowledge its limitations before they become apparent too late. It cannot expect state funding, which has been decreasing over the past few years and remains less than pre-recession levels, to substantially supplement the cost of development. The UC’s general fund is limited by the need for accessible tuition costs and financial aid.

Losing funding and taking on more projects doesn’t add up to a balanced budget or good outcomes for students.

These plans are good steps to educating the growing portion of students seeking higher education in California, but they will decrease the value of that education if important resources aren’t accounted for in these budgets.

It’s not just about finding money to construct buildings. The UC must also find a way to fund student services offered in those buildings.

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