Education and El Zahir
Since 2005, when University of California, Merced opened, the number of undergraduate freshman applications for admission to the UC system has almost tripled from 76,508 to 203,700. In the same period, the number of transfer applicants nearly doubled from 24,439 to 46,155. More than half of the rise in applications, or 83,771, is from out-of-state students: domestic and international. Amid this increase in applications, the State Assembly is considering capping the proportion of out-of-state students to 10%, almost halving the number of out-of-state students from the current threshold of 18%.
In his short story “El Zahir,” the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges recounts the story of a man who becomes obsessed with a twenty-cent coin, so obsessed is this man with the coin that he loses track of everything else. Describing the Arabic word Zahir, Borges defines it as “the beings or things that have the terrible virtue of being unforgettable and whose image makes people mad.” I am the parent of a high school student, and in many ways, my child’s opportunity attend college, and my ability to afford it, is my own “Zahir.” I thus understand the calls within the state to limit the number of out-of-state students in the UC system, but I do not share them, and I think the out-of-state cap is a big mistake.
The UC system has been a source of knowledge creation and local economic development throughout its history. The twelve campuses of the University of California have hosted some of the most innovative and creative men and women in the world. When UC graduates complete their studies, more likely than not, they stay in California and contribute in many ways to the state’s economic growth. In fact, as a recent Brookings Institute report suggests, colleges and universities have a positive economic effect on local economies. The report suggests that college graduates generate a present value of lifetime individual local spending of more than a quarter of a million dollars compared to workers with only a high school degree.
But furthermore, a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates the causal relationship between dollars spent on research at local universities and the development of local entrepreneurial ecosystems. Not surprisingly, the authors of this study document a positive association between the presence of a research university and the quantity and quality of local entrepreneurship. But most important, this relationship becomes stronger over time. One way to measure entrepreneurship in a region is by the number of patents attributed to people in science and engineering occupations. California not surprisingly ranks number one of all US states. California’s rate of patents per million inhabitants is larger than any other country in the world. Undoubtedly, the UC system plays a significant role in California’s innovation and entrepreneurial hegemony.
The relevant policy question is what will be the effect in our economy if we cap the number of out-of-state students at the UC system. It is impossible to answer this question with certainty due to the lack of a proper counterfactual or experimental control group. California is unique. Still, I offer two arguments that support the hypothesis that a large part of California’s success is because the state has always welcomed creative, innovative people from all over the world.
First, there is a growing literature in economics and psychology that shows that more diverse teams are more creative, and stories abound on the power of diversity in fueling innovation. Professor Sujing Jang suggests that innovation and creativity arise when a team has at least one “cultural broker.” A cultural broker is a team member that can bridge the perspectives of the different team members. A more diverse UC system, not only benefits out-of-state students, but also enhances the quality of education for in-state California students.
Second, international students, and immigrants in general, are overrepresented among entrepreneurs and innovators in the United States. In his book “The Gift of Global Talent,” Professor William Kerr shows that forty percent of all new firms in America were founded by at least one immigrant. In addition, one-in-four immigrants are entrepreneurs, and in all new firms, one-in-four workers are immigrants. Welcoming students from all over the world, and creating an infrastructure where they can develop their abilities, has strengthen our economic environment.
Finally, from a policy perspective and returning to Borges’ short story, our “Zahir” must be to attract the most talented college students from California and elsewhere. Attract talent, no matter from where. Let me be clear: we must still enhance access to the UC for meritorious in-state students. Yet, we should do that by expanding College offerings, opening new campuses, and expanding financial support. Not at the cost of out-of-state students and our economy. In the search for global talent, we must be obsessed with attracting the most talented: from within the state, from other states, internationally. That has long been the success of California.
Fernando Lozano is professor of economics at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. He tweets @fdolozano . All ideas expressed in this opinion piece are his.