Road Trip: University of California—Berkeley

We toured some of California's top schools and found out what it's like to attend them.

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Telegraph Avenue, a main artery into the University of California's flagship campus, looks a little anemic these days. Strangely dressed oddballs wander the streets. Mixed in among eclectic eateries (falafel, burritos, curries, cream puffs), dark storefronts make the streetscape look like a gap-toothed smile. Amid the redwood groves and burbling streams that soften the campus of the University of California-Berkeley sprout even more worrisome signs of California's economic crisis. 

Posters on campus doors this spring announced: "Furlough closure days: April 9, April 30, May 14." And though Berkeley is already one of the nation's most expensive public universities, officials warn of price hikes. Still, campus tours were packed. 

A record 50,000 high school seniors applied to Berkeley for fall 2010 admission. To meet state budget cuts, Berkeley slashed the number of in-staters it accepted to 9,420 from 2009's 11,200. It also accepted thousands more out-of-staters, who will pay more than $35,000 in tuition and fees (compared with $12,460 for in-staters). 

The average admitted student earned an A-minus grade point average in high school and a three-test SAT score of 2062. Lucky enrollees get to study with some of the world's top professors. Berkeley boasts eight Nobel laureates, 30 MacArthur "geniuses," and four Pulitzer winners. Tour guide Leighna Baxter, who graduated in May 2010 with a degree in molecular toxicology, proudly lists the 10 elements discovered at its labs, including plutonium, californium, and berkelium. "There still is no stanfordium," she sniffs. 

While lower division classes tend to be large (44 students on average), upperclassmen often land courses with fewer than 20 students, Baxter notes. Upper division classes typically have about 24 students, Berkeley says. 

Baxter likes to debunk fears of many parents (including hers) that Berkeley turns kids into hippies. Student groups come in all shapes and political flavors. Take Vegan Legal Tastiness, which provides free vegan dinners for aspiring lawyers and, as founder Danny Kramer likes to say, "other human beings." 

Vini Mani, a member of a South Asian a cappella group and a sophomore majoring in bioengineering, says that because she grew up nearby, Berkeley wasn't high on her list among colleges that admitted her. But after visiting other choices, including Johns Hopkins and Northwestern universities, she realized Berkeley was for her. "There were so many opportunities, and so much diversity. Each person has a place to fit in and be unique," she says. While students, naturally, are worried about the budget cuts and price increases, Mani says most are figuring out ways to get by. She moved off campus to save a few hundred dollars a month. "The academic atmosphere hasn't changed," she says. 

And Telegraph Avenue's denizens, like the man dressed in a suit of big red circles? Mani shrugs. "They are a little bit crazy, but nice." Besides, she says, it's worth the walk down Telegraph to her favorite kebab restaurant.

More About Berkeley:

Plus Factor: Clubs for everything from baking to vegan law students. The chance to study with Nobel laureates.

Undergrad enrollment, 2009: 25,530

Est. annual cost, 2010-2011: in state, $31,044; out of state, $53,923 

California Road Trip:

• Stanford University
• Mills College
• San Francisco State University

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