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University of California celebrates its 150th anniversary

The University of California was founded in 1868 and started admitting women two years later, long before many Ivy League schools.
The University of California was founded in 1868 and started admitting women two years later, long before many Ivy League schools.

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The idea was simple but revolutionary: College should be available to everyone. So began the University of California, which turns 150 years old today.

Almost 300,000 students now attend UC schools on ten different campuses. Compare that with 1868, when the fledgling UC was a hodgepodge of temporary buildings with only 10 faculty.
KPCC education reporter Adolfo Guzman Lopez joined Take Two's A Martinez to talk about how the UC system has evolved.
How the University of California began

California Governor Henry Haight signed the act that created the University of California in 1868. The law married the College of California, which had enrolled some students but was in heavy debt, with a new college for agriculture and mechanical studies that had funding but no building. The founders of these institutions were mostly Christian ministers from the East Coast.

A belief in California's potential

The future was very obvious to the founders. The Gold Rush and entry into the U.S. had attracted a lot of people to the state. The growing population created a need for teachers, accountants, government workers, engineers and other professionals. So UCs were responding to a practical need to fill those jobs.

Women were able to attend the UC long before Ivy League schools

That was very uncommon. Yale and Princeton admitted women in 1969. Columbia University didn’t start admitting women until 1981. 1870s California was a place that wasn’t beholden to some of the East Coast’s social rules.

Notable UC alumni

UC faculty and researchers have won 61 Nobel Prizes over the years, mostly in chemistry and physics, which underlines the UC's status as a science powerhouse. There are so many stories.

One that sticks out is that of Ralph Bunche. He was an African-American kid who graduated from Jefferson High in South L.A., was accepted to UCLA, paid for tuition and expenses with a sports scholarship and a job as a janitor. He went to graduate school, eventually became a U.S. diplomat, then won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for brokering a peace agreement between Israel and four Arab countries the year before. A UC education opened the doors for him.

UC’s impact on popular culture

If New York high school student Mario Savio hadn’t enrolled at UC Berkeley, would he have helped start the Free Speech Movement in 1964? If Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison hadn’t met in film class at UCLA, would they have founded The Doors? If Angela Davis hadn’t enrolled at UCSD to study under a famous Marxist philosopher, would she have joined the Black Panthers and become such a prominent American thinker? The UC has helped a lot of people achieve.

Measuring the UC's financial  impact

A 2011 report found the University of California generates about $46.3 billion in economic activity in California and contributes $32.8 billion to the gross state product. UCLA has an annual budget of about $7 billion. A report says UCLA had a nearly $13 billion economic impact, through 103,000 jobs in the region and around the state. That’s just one campus. Each of the other nine campuses has a similar economic impact in their regions.

Tuition is on the rise

The cost to attend UC has skyrocketed. Tuition has tripled in the last 20 years. This year, resident students are paying about $14,000 each year in tuition and fees. The recession a decade ago led to budget cuts, which UC administrators say hurt the quality of teaching and research on campuses.

Diversity is still a problem. Black and Latino student enrollment at some of UC’s top campuses like UC Berkeley, UCLA and UCSD is still far below the proportion of those groups in the California population. But black and Latino enrollment at a couple of campuses like Merced and Riverside is much higher.

Founding philosophy of the UC system — that college should be available to everyone — is becoming a difficult mission to fulfill

UC broke application records again this year. UC campuses received 220,000 applications. Admission rates vary widely. About 17 percent of those who apply to UCLA and UC Berkeley get in. About half get into UC Riverside, and 72 percent get into UC Merced.