Graduate Students Drive UC research, Help Keep Top Faculty

The University of California attracts the top graduate students in the United States, but vital research programs could be hampered in the future if the university can't continue to draw the best students because of funding challenges.

"UC is one of the leading academic research enterprises in the world, and graduate students play an important role in conducting the research," said Steven Beckwith, UC vice president for research and graduate studies. "They spark ideas, make discoveries, enrich the arts and work to solve some of society's most pressing problems as they work at the cutting edge of knowledge."

UC leads the nation in drawing high-quality graduate students to its 10 campuses, according to the Biennial Accountability Sub-Report on Graduate Academic and Professional Degree Students, which will be presented to the UC Regents on July 15. In 2009, UC had 7 percent of all the graduate students in the United States, but they won 20 to 30 percent of the most competitive and prestigious fellowships in science, arts and humanities.

UC remains highly desirable to graduate students. Applications to UC academic graduate programs rose 5 percent annually from 2000-09 compared with 3.5 percent at other top research universities, according to the accountability sub-report. In surveys, UC graduate students rated their UC and their non-UC top choice schools equally high on reputation, research interest and caring environment.

But those same surveys rated UC less favorably on the amount, type and duration of financial support as well as on the availability of affordable housing.

"Responses to this survey suggest that admitted students feel that the financial support for UC is not sufficient given the high cost of living at many campuses," the report stated.

"Surveys of students and anecdotal evidence from faculty and students suggest that additional funding will be required to attract the highest quality graduate students to UC doctoral programs," said Beckwith.

If the top graduate students shun UC for greener pastures, research programs would not be the only ones to suffer. Recruitment and retention of the best faculty could be severely hampered, too.

"Top faculty come to UC for many reasons," said UC President Mark Yudof. "The eminence of the department matters, but they would not come to a place without vibrant graduate programs and without outstanding graduate students."

"Graduate students are really the lifeblood of the university, from visual arts to philosophy, to engineering to the sciences and everything in between," said Kim Barrett, dean of graduate studies at UC San Diego. "As faculty, we benefit from their creativity and the ideas they bring into the laboratory and classroom."

Over the years, graduate students have played a key role in UC's research success and building California into a technology and cultural leader. UC graduate research helped spawn the biotechnology industry, and former graduate students have led the development of other industries, including electronics, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, nanotechnology and the special effects industry, among others.

In addition to mentoring undergraduate students, many UC graduate students also go on to become university educators. One-fourth of all UC and California State University faculty received their Ph.D. from a UC graduate program.

"Given the important role that graduate students play in the research and education mission of UC, we will always monitor the quality of students recruited and act swiftly to correct any downward trend," said Beckwith.

Other data in the report include:

  • In fall of 2009, UC enrolled 31,337 academic degree students and 17,337 professional degree students.
  • As the public institution with primary responsibility for granting doctoral degrees in California, UC awarded 63 percent of all academic doctoral degrees in the state. California led the nation with 5,923 doctorates awarded in 2007-08.
  • UC Berkeley produced more Ph.D.s than any other U.S. university in 2007-08.
  • Although applications to UC academic graduate programs increased annually by an average of 5 percent from 2000 to 2009, UC allowed enrollment to increase by only 1 percent each year.
  • UC's admissions rate of 19 percent was lower than the average 32 percent rate for research universities in the United States, underscoring UC's selectivity compared to other institutions. UC's percentage of admitted students who enroll at UC (43 percent), however, lags behind the average of other top U.S. research universities (57 percent). This may be due to lagging graduate student support and higher costs of living at some UC campuses, noted the report.
  • Ethnic diversity among UC academic graduate students has increased 2.3 percent over the past seven years, and enrollment of underrepresented minorities is, on average, higher at UC than at other top private or public U.S. universities. Still, Chicano/Latino academic graduate student enrollment of 7 percent and 3 percent for African Americans lags severely behind California's population percentage for those two groups.

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