When the University of California, Merced campus opened in 2005 it was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of access to higher educational opportunities for San Joaquin Valley students. In 1995, the University of California Board of Regents specifically selected Merced because it was in the heart of the state’s largest and most populous region without its own UC campus — which hindered opportunities for residents and left a need for an educated workforce in the region.
Seven years after UC Merced first opened its doors, the student population has grown to over 5,000 students, but the number of students from the San Joaquin Valley geographical area has remained somewhat lackluster. In 2011, approximately 1,200 UC Merced students were from the Valley (Stockton to Fresno); 1,300 were from the Bay Area; and 1,000 students were from Los Angeles County. The remaining population of students was from other Southern California areas, the Sacramento Valley, and the state’s coastal areas.
J Michael Thompson, assistant vice-chancellor of enrollment management at UC Merced, said the parts of the state with larger population centers will, of course, create statistical geographic inequality. Thompson also said it has been his experience that many young people have a desire to go to college in a different geographical area than where they grew up.
Greater opportunity for Valley’s first generation students
One of the primary hopes for UC Merced was to provide the highest level of public instruction to the growing number of first-generation college students. So far that hope has been realized. In 2011, more than 60 percent of the university’s students were first-generation college students.
“So many people here are realizing the dream of a UC education,” said Thompson.
Along with growing the number of first-generation college students at its own campus, UC Merced is committed to increasing the overall number of first-generation students from the Valley.
In 2002, UC Merced created the Center for Educational Partnerships to effect long-range improvement in the education of Central San Joaquin Valley students and ultimately increase the number of area students eligible to attend institutions of higher education.
The CEP has been awarded grants totaling more than $3.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education to continue one of its most beneficial programs, Talent Search, which is intended to increase the number of San Joaquin Valley low-income and first-generation college students by helping them complete high school and enroll in and complete a postsecondary education — even if that education takes place at a California State University, private university or a community college.
Since 2004, nearly 6,000 low-income, first-generation students have received CEP assistance, said the program’s assistant director Orquidea Largo. CEP has plans to further its outreach to the general student population with parent empowerment courses that aim to create a long-term systemic change and increase college opportunities for thousands of Valley students entering their final years of high school.
Tuition at the state’s four-year campuses has nearly doubled in the past five years, to $13,000 for resident undergraduates at UC campuses.
More than ever before, students will be looking to loans and grants to make college possible. More than 60 percent of UC Merced students receive Pell Grants, which go to students who need the most financial help, and many more receive other forms of financial aid.
“It will be critical for us to find creative ways for students to come here. To get students in, many of whom are first-generation students from low to middle income families, financial help is paramount. In our current political climate it will be challenging, but I have faith in our talented financial aid personnel,” said Thompson.