The state's economy is struggling and budget cuts to higher education have become an annual affair, but that hasn't kept the University of California, Merced, from continuing its rapid growth.
The university's fall census showed the 2010-11 student body at 4,381, an increase of more than 28 percent from a year ago. This follows a record number of applications last November and a surge in campus visits by high school students from all over the state.
"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."
University officials said they are thrilled by the growing demand they've witnessed since the newest UC campus opened with 875 students in 2005. Today's campus is much more developed and refined, boasting many of the amenities of its nine sister campuses yet remaining the smallest and most intimate in the system.
"The campus always feels alive, with students being involved with activities to make an impact on the community, along with making friends," said Jordan Cervantes, a junior transfer student from Merced. "The ability to do research with professors at UC Merced is definitely a plus and is very beneficial when thinking about graduate school or just gaining experience in a particular field of study."
This year's student body includes 1,341 new freshmen, up nearly 19 percent over a year ago, along with 209 new transfer students and a total of 243 graduate students. Approximately 58 percent of incoming freshmen are first-generation college students. Roughly 59 percent of them are receiving financial aid in the form of federal Pell grants, available only to families in the lowest economic strata.
Census data for the current year shows that students are coming to UC Merced from all corners of the state. About 29 percent of incoming freshmen hail from the San Francisco Bay Area. Nearly 27 percent are from the San Joaquin Valley, and about 22 percent come from the greater Los Angeles area. The Sacramento/Lake Tahoe area contributes nearly 7 percent.
"This reflects well on the quality of education students believe they can receive at UC Merced, regardless of where they come from," Kang said.
The growth in enrollment is expected to continue in the coming years. Funding agreements with the UC Office of the President will allow the university to add an estimated 600 students per year through the 2012-13 academic year, when student enrollment is expected to top 5,000.
Kang said the challenge of starting a new school in the midst of economic turmoil has not been easy, but it has been rewarding.
"In a normal economic environment, a new campus might not have meant as much to the people we serve," he said. "In today's environment, the need is greater than ever. I think that's what we're seeing in these growing enrollment numbers."
For complete data, visit the Office of Institutional Planning & Analysis' website .