UCSF Boosts Efforts to Support Students in Multiple Ways

By Lisa Cisneros on January 05, 2010

Joseph Castro, right, vice provost of Student Academic Affairs, talks to UCSF students, from left, Marnie Noel, Daniel Hardy, Julie Hunkapiller, Hugo Torres, and Alyssa Abraham about their personal experiences and challenges as aspiring scientists and health professionals during an Alumni Association event on Oct. 13.

UCSF’s continued academic excellence is inextricably linked to the quality of its graduate students, who drive life sciences discoveries, and its professional students, who are tomorrow’s leaders in health care delivery, research and education.

But recent data shows that UCSF is losing some of the brightest minds to competitors as the University grapples with state budget cuts, which systemwide totaled $813 million over the last two years.

The tough financial times have strained the University resulting in student fee hikes and prompting huge protests at some campuses, faculty and staff layoffs and furloughs, fewer course offerings and decreased enrollment. In fact, graduate and professional student enrollment growth at UCSF has been delayed due to the state’s budget crisis.

Struggling to maintain its academic excellence, affordability and accessibility, the entire University of California is rethinking its historic role in higher education at a time of diminishing resources. The UC Commission on the Future is hosting public forums at campuses across the system to develop a collective vision for the future of the state’s public research university – one that reaffirms UC’s role in sustaining California’s economic and cultural vitality, while recognizing that limited state funding will require creativity and new strategies to meet that mission.

UCSF Increases Student Financial Support

Joseph Castro

For its part, UCSF has been able to increase student financial support by 20 percent from $96 million in fiscal year 2007-2008 to $115 million in fiscal year 2008-2009. In addition, grant/fellowship funds have increased by 16 percent from $46 million to $53 million over the same period, according to Joseph Castro, PhD, vice provost for Student Academic Affairs.

UCSF responded quickly to the mid-year increases of $579 in professional school fees by providing additional financial support for the 1,408 dental, medical, nursing and pharmacy students who receive financial aid. The campus Student Financial Aid Office, along with the schools of medicine and nursing, were able to pay for the entire $579 fee increase.  Students demonstrating financial need in the schools of pharmacy and dentistry were provided $200 in grant support with funds from the Student Financial Aid Office. Those pharmacy and dentistry students who have difficulty paying the $379 balance have access to low-interest loans, Castro said.

UCSF also is assisting graduate students with their increased mid-year fees by using a combination of department funds and Graduate Division central support funds, according to Patricia Calarco, PhD, dean of the UCSF Graduate Division.

Unlike professional students, Calarco points out, UCSF’s basic science graduate students receive full financial support. “If they did not, we would not be able to recruit them to UCSF because all our competitors offer full support and often higher stipends than we do,” she said.

Calarco says this situation is unsustainable.

“Admissions were down in 2009 and I expect them to be down again in 2010,” she said. “Only by taking fewer students can the fee increases be met. Central funds are essentially fixed so fee increases get passed on to the professors’ research grants. This is untenable for our competitive standing in research and decreasing our class sizes may lead to a downward spiral.  Complicating this, it is now almost the same cost to support a postdoc as a student.”

Chancellor Pursues New Revenue

Since the state budget woes are forecasted to continue in coming years, UCSF leaders are looking at how to provide additional financial support over the long-term.

UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, has pledged to aggressively pursue new sources of revenue and to advocate for the University at the state and national level to ensure that the economic downturn doesn’t hamper innovation and education. She plans to visit with state legislators in Sacramento this month.

Speaking at a Nov. 12 event “Focus on Research: Strategies for Accelerating Health Science Research,” Desmond-Hellmann said that two of her top five priorities as chancellor — discovery and education — are “driven in no small part by our graduate programs, our postdocs.”

UC’s Efforts to Help Students

UCSF is participating in UC’s fundraising effort, Project You Can,  to raise $1 billion in the aggregate over the next four years to double the amount of private support the system has raised for scholarships, fellowships and other gift aid in the previous five years.

UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan has recently expanded financial aid to undergraduates to include California families with incomes below $70,000. The plan previously covered all systemwide fees for resident undergraduates with financial need whose family incomes were $60,000 or below.

The University also has launched an advocacy campaign that seeks to enlist members of the University and community at large to help convince lawmakers to better support higher education. Details are posted on the UCSF Advocates website.

“What the world needs from UCSF is something transformative,” she said. “My job is making sure UCSF has the resources and talent it needs to fulfill its mission” of advancing health worldwide.™

To this end, Desmond-Hellmann has asked Castro and Carol Moss, vice chancellor of University Development and Alumni Relations at UCSF, to lead a team focusing on increasing student financial aid.

Student Debt Rises

As fees continue to increase so does the average debt levels for students across UCSF, except for those in the School of Dentistry. Debt between 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 for dental students decreased slightly from $139,000 to $138,000. The average loan debts for other students have increased as follows: medical ($99,000 to $108,000), nursing ($27,000 to $30,000), pharmacy ($87,000 to $97,000) and Graduate Division ($19,000 to $20,000) during this period.

“During an economic downturn, we should be offering students and their families as much financial assistance as we can,” Castro said. “Our economy needs more students who pursue careers in the life sciences and the health professions.”

Meanwhile, some competitors are attracting students who are admitted to UCSF, but who choose to enroll elsewhere because of better financial aid packages that allow them to graduate with less debt, said David Wofsy, MD, associate dean for admissions at the School of Medicine, who tracks students.

“It is our goal to be the best financial option for everyone admitted to UCSF,” Wofsy said. “Once we could take that for granted. We are still the best financial option for the majority of applicants, but not for everyone and not by the margin we should be.”

“It’s a huge problem,” Castro added, “because in the past, we’ve been able to maintain the same quality as our private university competitors but at a lower cost. Now, it has become more expensive for some students to attend a public university like UCSF.”

Maintaining Competitiveness

In a report to UC President Mark Yudof, the Chancellor’s Executive Committee last year identified “maintaining competitiveness in recruiting the best students by fostering interdisciplinary educational programs, enhancing student life, increasing student financial support and improving educational facilities and infrastructure” among its priorities for the next two years. The priorities stem from a highly inclusive two-year planning process which resulted in UCSF’s first-ever strategic plan, released in June 2007.

UCSF is motivated to better support students and the academic mission as it seeks reaccreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the regional accreditation agency. Accreditation indicates that UCSF meets rigorous standards of quality, capacity and effectiveness. UCSF is currently accredited by WASC through 2010. Under the new WASC standards, the reaccreditation process at UCSF consists of a three-year review with both self- and external assessments conducted by two visiting teams.

To implement recommendations in the UCSF Strategic Plan and to prepare for a 2010 WASC site visit, UCSF Student Academic Affairs is leading the way to support students on multiple fronts.

Among the recent highlights to serve students better are:

  • UCSF upgraded technology and furniture in 40 classrooms at Parnassus and Mission Bay and installed new robust wireless systems at these sites and Laurel Heights;
  • Established the first-ever endowment to sustain classroom improvements;
  • Approved and funded a new Center for Teaching and Learning at Parnassus, which is scheduled to open in 2011;
  • Implemented a new online learning platform and
  • Enhanced student wellness and mental health services and maintained waiting periods for mental health counseling services at one week or less.

In addition, plans are underway to establish the first-ever study area to operate around the clock in the Parnassus library and a Student Resources Center at Mission Bay.

Advocating for Students

Castro is also co-leading a systemwide team to institute a UC-wide graduate student health insurance program to enhance benefits and stabilize rates. Currently, each campus has its own separate student insurance plans, which like the rest of the nation continue to require higher premiums and co-payments. Castro believes that for the first time, UCSF and other UC campuses will be able to offer affordable, dependent care coverage after successful negotiations lead to new three-year medical insurance contracts.

The University also is offering more support to students through new programs, such as those for international and first-generation to college students. In the latest development, Castro is co-leading a subcommittee of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Academic Diversity with Renee Navarro, MD, PharmD, director of Academic Diversity, to review reports from students, faculty and staff that call for creating a center for diversity and outreach. The group also will analyze other relevant data, such as best practices at other universities, to develop a single proposal with recommendations for the Chancellor in spring 2010.

Some UCSF students have said that they are attracted to UCSF because of its diverse community, but when they arrive, the culture and the climate leaves them wanting more opportunities for interaction.

UCSF has made progress in its quest to nurture diversity, also a major recommendation in the UCSF Strategic Plan and critical component to the WASC accreditation. The University increased the proportion of underrepresented students enrolled at UCSF from 19 percent in fall 2007 to 22 percent in fall 2008. UCSF has maintained a retention rate of UCSF students of more than 96 percent in 2008.

The entire October 2009 “Campus Two-Year Goals Progress Report” is posted online on the UCSF Strategic Plan website.

Photo by Noah Berger

Related Links:


Student Leaders Share Insights into Rewards and Challenges of UCSF Education
UCSF Today, Oct. 22, 2009

UCSF Submits Action Plan to Reaffirm WASC Accreditation
UCSF Today, Aug. 27, 2007

UCSF Strategic Plan

UCSF Diversity website

UCSF Reaffirmation of Accreditation by WASC

UC Commission on the Future