A commission that advises the University of California on its long-term goals this week recommended increasing the proportion of graduate students at the UC from 22 percent to 26 percent of the student body.
The 25-member UC Commission on the Future discussed the need for more graduate students at their Aug. 31 meeting [PDF], saying the move was necessary to serve the university's research mission and educate California's future professors.
Considering the university's tight budget, however, moving to increase graduate students would cost the university hundreds of millions of dollars to recruit the best students with competitive financial aid packages. That makes the commission's goal of increasing graduate student enrollment "purely aspirational," said Daniel Greenstein, the UC's vice provost for academic planning, programs and coordination and a member of the panel.
The recommendation was one of several discussed this week and will be included in a draft report that the commission will review during a meeting Oct. 11.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times reported that the commission also recommended the UC increase the number of out-of-state undergraduates – a move that would bring in extra revenue but also poses political challenges.
The group is supposed to present a final report to the Board of Regents before the end of the year. Campuses are supposed to present plans to the UC president to achieve the goal of increasing graduate student enrollment by August 2011.
There are a number of reasons behind the commission's eagerness to bolster graduate enrollment. One is demographics. For years, the UC has seen rapid growth in its undergraduate population thanks to dramatic increases in the number of high school graduates in California. Now, demographers expect that population to finally flatten out. The commission sees this as a chance to focus on graduate students.
As a result of the university's focus on accommodating the flow of high school graduates over the last 50 years or so, the proportion of graduate students at the UC has slipped from one-third to one-fifth of total enrollment, according to the university's long-range enrollment plan:
Source: University of California
Another factor is UC's desire to remain competitive. Graduate students make up about 22 percent of the total enrollment at UC, which places the university behind some of the institutions it compares itself to, as this chart shows:
Source: University of California
The commission touts several benefits to increasing graduate student enrollment. For one, graduates of UC’s academic doctoral programs fill roughly a quarter of teaching positions at the UC and in the California State University system.
The group also argues more graduate students would improve the quality of undergraduate education because they would provide a larger teaching workforce and would help ease overcrowding in key undergraduate classes. Not to mention that graduate students can help fuel innovation.
But the university can't draw more graduate students without more money, the commission says. Departments are often unwilling to admit students if they cannot provide them competitive support packages.
And according to a survey conducted annually by the university's financial aid offices, the students admitted to the UC's academic doctoral programs get financial aid offers that run about $1,000 less, on average, from the UC than they get from their other top-choice institutions.
Even without increasing grad student enrollment, the UC estimates it would cost around $75 million just to bring their financial aid packages up to speed with the competition at current enrollment levels, a UC spokeswoman said.
"The commission on the future was meant to look at things that would improve the university's performance and save it money, (but) a couple of recommendations are affirming our aspirations to do a couple things," he said. "To achieve this goal would cost us more money than we have. … I would say it's impossible in the current environment."