MERCED -- Enrollment at the University of California at Merced took a big leap this year, growing 28 percent to 4,381 students, more than a quarter of them from the San Joaquin Valley, university officials said.
"It's absolutely fabulous to see (the growth)," said Keith Griffith, manager for education of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
"UC Merced was a longtime dream and need for the San Joaquin Valley," he said. "This is ending the brain drain."
Among those students who stayed close to home for college is Stacey Escobedo of Ceres, now a junior at UC Merced majoring in sociology with a minor in history. She's planning on a career in federal law enforcement.
"It has the credibility of a UC -- which is one of the best public systems in the country -- and I happen to have one a half-hour from where I live," Escobedo said. She likes the university's more personal scale.
"The class sizes are still relatively small. That transition from high school to college came really easy," she said.
UC Merced's familiar, small-town feel also appeals to Alexiss Cervera, 16, a senior at Central Valley High School in Ceres. She said she will apply to UC Merced later this year.
She wants to major in pre-med with a business minor, with an eye to being a pediatrician. Medical schools at UC San Francisco and UC Davis seemed overwhelming, Alexiss said.
"The reason I want to go to a UC is I'm able to go. I have the drive," she said. "... (Valley kids) should totally try. We need education to succeed in life -- that's what my parents always told me."
The oldest of five children, Alexiss would be the first in her family to go to college.
That would make her just one of the crowd at UC Merced, which reports 58 percent of incoming freshmen are first-generation college students.
If she gets financial aid, as she hopes, she again will be in the majority. Roughly three out of five UC Merced freshmen are receiving financial aid in the form of federal Pell grants, according to a UC Merced news release.
Edith Ysais-Rodriguez, lead learning director at Ceres High School, said having a UC nearby makes a difference.
"I definitely see it. It's very encouraging," Ysais-Rodri-guez said. "I can tell you here at our campus the (number of) kids that are UC-eligible has increased. I think it's motivation."
She said UC Merced has reached out to valley high schools, coming to application workshops and following up with students individually.
"We definitely have a partnership with UC Merced. I feel they are committed," Ysais- Rodriguez said.
The university also is seen as a partial antidote for the valley's chronically high unemployment rates and comparatively low education levels.
According to new Census Bureau numbers, only 16.3 percent of adults in Stanislaus County hold bachelor's degrees, compared with 27.9 percent nationwide.
"It's truly a beneficial institution to have in our back yard," Griffith said. "We're hoping the tide will turn. This is certainly a step in the right direction."
The newest UC campus opened with 875 students in 2005. It added 1,341 freshmen for 2010-11.
Campus census data for 2010-11 show students came to UC Merced from all corners of the state, including about 29 percent of incoming freshmen hailing from the Bay Area. Nearly 27 percent are from the San Joaquin Valley and about 22 percent come from the greater Los Angeles area.
Increases in enrollment also are planned this year across the California State University system. Acceptance letters are going out now for the spring semester after the traditional Aug. 31 application cutoff date was extended because of the ongoing state budget impasse. Officials estimated that they would get about 50,000 student applications.
Despite continuing uncertainty over funding, the CSU system announced this week it will use federal stimulus money to admit up to 30,000 new students for the winter and spring semesters. Enrollment increases by campus were not released.
Junior colleges are seeing increased enrollment as well. A Yosemite Community College District board report in September noted that Modesto Junior College enrollment is up about 4 percent over last year to 19,506 students.
MJC classes overall are at 98.8 percent of capacity, and in some disciplines classes exceed 100 percent of capacity, said Nick Stavrianoudakis, district public affairs director.
At Columbia College, full-time equivalent enrollment is up 7.36 percent above the previous year. That is with a 15.7 percent reduction in full-time faculty, Stavrianoudakis said. Columbia serves 3,727 students.
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Bee staff writer Patty Guerra and the Merced Sun-Star contributed to this report.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.