Sunday, April 19, 2009

Southern UC Campus Tour

UCSD's Geisel Library

We've just returned from a tour of many of the southern University of California campuses. This traditional rite of passage for parents and students is essentially a shopping trip to find just the right school for your High School junior, and bragging rights for the parents. Bragging rights don't come easily, all of the California schools fit into a rigid hiearchy with UCB at the top, UCLA next, UCSD after that and so on. No official brochure provides this breakdown, but every single campus tour parent could recite as much from memory, with a passion usually reserved for fantasy baseball draft picks and the relative merits of BMW's 5 and 7 series. It's a tough crowd.

The tours are conducted by students who are selected for their ability to enthuse for one or two hours while walking backwards and fielding questions from eager parents. Prepared spiels about academics, food, housing, sports, campus life and so on, were supposed to elicit similar questions and, usually just to be polite, someone would offer up a topical inquiry. Once that formality was out of the way, the dam would inevitably break, and the admissions questions would begin. Admissions to the UCs are very competitive. Ridiculously so. The average grade point average for an incoming UCLA freshman is 4.15. To make sure that GPA isn't inflated by stellar grades in idle pursuits like physical education or woodshop or music, the UCs only consider worthy studies like history, math or science, and then only grades earned in the student's sophomore or junior years. Even perfect marks in high school classes will not distinguish applicants, since one can only earn a "4.0" for an A. To truly distinguish themselves, students must take college level Advanced Placement courses, since letter grades are worth an extra point, 5.0 for an A.

We attended a special admissions presentation at UCSD where a genuine gatekeeper held forth for about 45 minutes on what eligibility really depended on. Exactly 77% depended on GPA and test scores, and the former could be goosed by spending summers and evenings taking qualified courses at the local community college. Don't think you can take a break as a senior he warned, UCSD would consider the final year's courseload in figuring the final 23% of your student's score, so don't give in to the temptation to slow to a jog during the final lap. The not too subtle message in all of this seems to be that the ideal UC candidate will have completed 2-3 years worth of college coursework before entering college.

Perhaps it's because incoming freshman are expected to have a substantial part of their college education taken care of by the time they arrive, the UCs appear to have generous funds available for landscaping, building, and beautification. All of the campuses we visited were gorgeous. The grand old buildings had been restored to like-new splendor, the new buildings were sparkling and sometimes architecturally daring. The landscaping was impossibly perfect, and the facilities, the gymnasiums and pools and fitness centers, and parks and libraries, were all large, well appointed, and radiating that healthy glow that can only come from truckloads of money. I've always been dismayed by the somewhat shabby condition of our public elementary and high schools. We Californians send our children to be educated in places that would never pass muster as offices or eateries or fitness centers for the adult population, but we seem to be content to send our children to institutions whose physical plant has only seen three coats of fresh paint since the 1960s. I'm pleased that the same is not true for California's universities.

All of the UC campuses we visited, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Irvine, were well represented by their student tour guides who did their level best to advertise the variety and quality of academic and campus life their institutions offered. They didn't need to draw attention to the beauty of the campus itself, an hour's walk around any of these campuses on a sunny afternoon would impress anyone with functioning senses. Sadly, being granted a position in the freshman class is a privilege that few will enjoy. For example UCLA only accepts 23% of those who apply (the medical school accepts a whopping 4%). Budget cuts will reduce the overall UC student population considerably this year and so it's likely that admissions will only become more competitive. One other aspect of admissions that seems borderline bonkers, is the implicit requirement that a 16 year child pick their life's career.

Admission to UCLA is by college, and blended into our tour guide's peroration about the dizzying heights of the faculty's ivory towers, was the warning that once admitted, switching colleges was very difficult. And don't forget to tailor your high school coursework and resume to the college you're applying to. The not subtle implication of this is that all of the striving that's expected for prospective students had better be purposeful and narrowly focused on a specific career goal. Wavering will only yield the competitive edge to a child so precocious that they'd made up their mind about their life's work shortly after graduating to solid foods.

There's no risk of that kind of clairvoyance in our family, so we'll just have to see what happens. California is home to a vast kingdom of public universities, all capable of teaching and training and housing and grooming and completing the education of our teenage children. So, no matter where my sons end up, the end result is safely in their hands. And even if they aren't admitted to a school at the very top of the pyramid, I'll still brag about them.