Necessary nonresidents

UNIVERSITY ISSUES: Faced with few other short-term options, UC officials should enroll more nonresident students, but larger changes are needed.

For years, the University of California has struggled to ensure that it maintains access for as many state residents as possible while also preserving its academic excellence. And while the university is clearly in need of dramatic structural changes to adapt to the recurring problems it faces, tough short-term decisions are still necessary to keep the system functioning properly.

Increasing the number of nonresident students who attend UC campuses is one of the quickest ways to give the university more financial flexibility. At its meeting in San Francisco last week, the UC Board of Regents debated the pros and cons of enrolling more nonresident students — who currently make up an estimated 8.8 percent of undergraduate students — and it should approve that idea in the future if doing so will keep the university academically competitive.

California residents are understandably wary of allowing more students from outside the state into the UC system. The university is supposed to serve California and therefore has a responsibility to admit mostly in-state students. But in reality, nonresidents’ more-expensive tuition benefits Californians by supporting the university’s financial health, bolstering programs and helping keep the university’s competitive academic environment intact for all students.

The amount of quick cash available from nonresidents is significant. Gov. Jerry Brown told the regents last week that the university can save $23 million for every 1,000 nonresident students it enrolls — an option that is, as Brown said, “a great, tempting source of money.” With state funds now accounting for an incredibly small portion of the university’s finances,  the need to ramp up nonresident enrollment is severe. Enrolling a higher number of nonresident students would also not be unprecedented — at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, nonresidents have consistently accounted for more than 40 percent of the entire student body in recent years.

Even if UC officials can secure modest increases in state funding — which Proposition 30’s passage may allow them to do — enrolling a greater amount of nonresidents would still be necessary. When the regents approved a 2013-14 UC budget last week that included asking the state for more than $267 million in additional funds, Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that Sacramento was unlikely to acquiesce. Their resistance indicates that any additional state money will not be sufficient to meet the university’s needs.

Still, nonresident students are not a panacea to this problem. The regents have suggested other solid plans for bringing in more revenue — such as restructuring the university’s debt and tapping more into opportunities available through research — but  they must think bigger. If the regents want to avoid repeating the same conversations about these issues, they must do more than simply admit more nonresidents and increase tuition. They need to transform the university completely.