This fall, more students than ever chose UC Merced for college.
School officials released the university's official census this week, and the number of students enrolled is 4,381 -- a 28 percent increase from last fall.
That follows a record number of applications last November, about 12,000 in total, and a surge in campus visits by high school students from all over the state, said Brenda Ortiz, a UC Merced spokeswoman.
"Many studies have shown that the long-term solution to economic hardship, for individuals as well societies as a whole, lies in higher education," UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang said. "The state's prolonged financial struggles have made this maxim especially relevant of late.
"Young people and their families are seeing the devastating effects of poverty and unemployment in a very personal way. If anything, they're more determined than ever to fight back by getting a quality education."
One reason for the surge in applications and admissions is that families may be looking closely at value over well-known brand names, said Kevin Browne, UC Merced assistant vice chancellor of enrollment management.
Because of various economic failures, such as the housing market collapse, families have lost consumer confidence in goods and services, he said. That translates to making more prudent decisions when it comes to education.
For example, some families may choose Cornell University over Princeton University because of the better value, Browne said.
UC officials said there's already tremendous value for people attending a UC school because of the relatively low cost and their course offerings. It's even more valuable at UC Merced because students are getting a small selective experience that is not available anywhere else in the UC system and it won't be available in 20 years, Browne said.
Browne compared UC Merced to a small liberal arts college, such as Reed College in Oregon or Kenyon College in Ohio -- but at a much lower cost.
While economics played a role in the enrollment jump, the biggest factor was the school finally making a name for itself.
The school opened with 875 students in 2005.
While that number may seem small, Browne said, it's a larger number than what other UC schools began with. "UC Berkeley's enrollment was 7 when it opened," he added. "No other university grew as fast as Merced."
In general there were fewer college-bound people when Berkeley opened, but proportionally it has grown the fastest, Browne said.
The school has organized a formal structure of regional admissions counselors who work with local schools to put Merced in a context. "They've had a huge impact in the schools they serve," he said.
Almost all of the UC schools, save UC Merced and UCLA, used a wait-list this year because of state-mandated enrollment caps.
UC Merced benefited from that, Browne added, but the fact that the school also got an increase in applications showed that students made a choice. "Students are choosing Merced over other campuses," he added. "Some students are only applying to Merced. We've just broken 4,300. We have the ability to know our students better than any other UC school. It's an informed choice."
This year, UC Merced added 1,341 new freshmen, 209 new transfer students and a total of 243 graduate students, according to a news release.
More than half of freshmen are first-generation college students and are receiving financial aid in the form of federal Pell grants, available only to families in the lowest economic strata, the release added.
Students have flocked from all over the state, with 29 percent from the Bay Area, 27 percent from the San Joaquin Valley and about 22 percent from the Los Angeles area.
Enrollment growth will continue. Funding agreements with the UC Office of the President will allow the university to add an estimated 600 students a year through the 2012-2013 academic year, when student enrollment is expected to reach 5,000.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can reached at (209) 385-2407 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.