At a time when national higher education is beset by admissions scandals, political winds and declining public confidence, there is a young but mighty institution in California’s Central Valley that is demonstrating everything that is right about higher education.
UC Merced opened 14 years ago in fields still muddy and buildings half-finished. It graduated its first class in the depths of the recession in the poorest part of California. Many of its students were the first in their families to set foot on a college campus; they were followed by thousands who are low-income, undocumented and underrepresented.
Yet earlier this month US News & World Report ranked the youngest campus in the University of California system as No. 1 in the country for outperforming expected graduation rates, No. 1 for students receiving need-based financial aid, seventh for creating social mobility and 13th among all public institutions for undergraduate teaching. Overall, UC Merced — still in its early adolescence — was ranked the 44th best public university in the nation.
This is no accident, and it bodes particularly well for the future of California, which increasingly will look like the students UC Merced educates today. It also offers a way forward for universities grappling with educating an increasingly diverse population of future leaders, in the face of public skepticism about higher ed. The road map includes disciplined commitment to the best practices for ensuring student success — and passion for the mission.
UC Merced doesn’t merely provide access to greatest public university system in the United States. It ensures that, once students arrive, they thrive. Proven best practices are crucial here: UC Merced requires freshman and sophomore campus residency, so students — especially first-generation students and students of color — are surrounded by peers, academic counselors, physical and mental health services, good nutrition and daily exposure to an exemplary faculty and graduate students who create new knowledge every day.
A residential university experience can be overwhelming for students who have no family history with higher education; the Summer Bridge program immerses low-income, first-generation students in campus life before their freshman year to address the social capital gap and ensure everyone starts school on more equal footing.
More and more UC Merced students are in living-learning communities, sharing academic and social life and bonding with like-minded peers who share the joys and boost each other through the challenges of a rigorous but stimulating course of education.
Academic advising is critical to this commitment, and centralized advisers follow students even when they change majors to ensure young people are getting academic advice that is focused on them, rather than on a field of study.
First-generation students are understandably drawn to traditional career-focused majors, such as medicine and engineering; when they pivot from those majors, living-learning communities like Beyond the MD help them find new ways forward to careers of success, pride and accomplishment. The mission is to instill a sense of belonging and hope.
This commitment is demonstrated by the faculty and graduate students who teach and learn alongside undergraduates. It is demonstrated by the staff who cook meals, clean classrooms, patrol residence halls and advise students. It is demonstrated by a great community that shows up to cheer students as they enter campus on the first day and again as they leave with diplomas and big dreams. It is carried on by the students themselves, whose love of learning persists past the bachelor’s; UC Merced is tied for second in the University of California system for graduates going on to earn doctorates.
The Pew Research Center found that a solid majority of U.S. adults believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction. More of those skeptics should head to the Central Valley, to restore their faith in education, to watch the caring being displayed and the knowledge being created, to see the lives being changed and the minds being unleashed.
Passion and commitment are what it takes to build the future. UC Merced is doing that, in the heart of California.