Visit UCLA, as I did today with my youngest daughter, and you will find that the photo’s you take could lead to an interesting story. For me, it started with the construction cranes, ubiquitous as we walked through the otherwise pristine campus. Without a formal tour on Presidents’ Day, we relied on an old friend and native Californian to guide us. Her responses to my questions—beginning with the cranes—changed my view of UCLA and the students for whom I will consider it an appropriate potential college option moving forward.
First, the high points! UCLA offers students a resource-rich environment on a majestic campus, complete with sweeping vista’s. Coming from a congested city in the Northeast, my daughter loved the sun, the open spaces, and the abundance of trees. The surrounding neighborhood of Westwood felt to me like a quaint college town. Jayda used the word “picturesque” when I asked her to describe it. Her reactions based on the physical environs alone helped me understand why some of my students have come back from visiting UCLA with stars in their eyes.
It turns out, though, that significant tension is roiling on UCLA’s idyllic campus, with overcrowded campus housing and exorbitant rents in surrounding Westwood contributing to the problems. The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, describes campus dorms as “overflowing.” The university itself, in its Student Housing Master Plan: 2016-2026, notes that it is currently using double occupancy rooms as triples—in other words, piling three students into rooms that they originally designed for two. As of 2016, these double-converted-to-triple rooms accounted for 73% of all student housing. Students who move off campus run into the challenge of rising Westwood rents. By 2018, the Los Angeles Times was reporting on the area as California’s priciest for tenants, exceeded nationally by only two neighborhoods in Manhattan. An undergraduate recalled 10 of his peers sharing a four-bedroom apartment to make it affordable. The university’s massive construction agenda to create new student housing has left current campus residents struggling with noise and other collateral living conditions that they find less than ideal.
The overcrowding at UCLA apparently extends to classrooms as well, according to the Daily Bruin. Students describe registration as a “fight to enroll in classes,” with those who can afford it sometimes paying their peers “for spots in classes in order to graduate on time.” According to Scott Waugh, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, the administration realizes “we are kind of bursting at the seams.”
The roots of the overcrowding trace back to the university’s strategic response to the 2008 economic downturn. The resulting recession and accompanying budget cuts pushed the University of California (UC) system to ramp up recruitment of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition than in-state residents do. By 2018, the UC in-state freshman admit rate had fallen from 85% in 2009 to 59%. The state legislature took notice: A combination of policy changes and funding incentives have led the UC system to bend towards the needs of in-state students over the next few years, at the expense of those coming from out of state. Expanded enrollment will add thousands of seats earmarked specifically for Californians. The UC system will no longer award need-based financial aid to out-of-state students.
These impending policy changes will affect life on campus for everyone. UCLA will become a viable option only for those out-of-state students who can afford full tuition or who take on potentially crippling student debt. Non-resident applicants to UCLA, facing a lower admit rate, already outpace their California counterparts when it comes to test scores and GPA, with the barriers to entry only set to increase based on sticker price. Enroll at UCLA today and you may find that cramped conditions across the board combined with massive construction projects make life less than ideal. Enroll at UCLA a few years from now and you may find that it feels far more like a regional institution than an international one, as those who have flocked to the university from across the country and overseas for more than 10 years find their numbers thinning. For California residents, the bargain price that the UC system offers, combined with ongoing access to financial aid, may offer an educational opportunity that they find hard to ignore. For everyone else, UCLA may start to lose its luster.