Is San Diego America’s Finest College Town?

SDSU and UCSD Are on the Rise, and They’re Bringing Their City up With Them

Is San Diego America’s Finest College Town? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

San Diego State and UCSD have made huge strides in academic quality, research, and sports—all while connecting to the city they call home, writes columnist Joe Mathews. Courtesy of Stuart Seeger/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Who needs ivy-covered walls, Palo Alto farms, or Telegraph Hill when you could study in America’s Finest College Town?

That’s the thinking of more California kids in the 21st century. Led by its two dynamic and forward-thinking public universities, San Diego, which once billed itself as “America’s Finest City,” is turning itself into a paradise for students.

San Diego’s public schools—San Diego State and UC San Diego—are bucking recent state and national declines by boosting enrollment. And in an era when California is retreating from developing, they are building a new campus, new housing, and even a new transit line.

At the heart of the story is San Diego State. The university’s dramatic run to the NCAA men’s basketball championship game this spring echoes the university’s rise over the past generation, from party school to academic leader of the California State University system.

San Diego State now trails only Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in selectivity in the Cal State system. It accepts about 37 percent of its applications—a lower rate than some UC schools, and far below the system-wide acceptance rate of more than 80 percent. As it gets more competitive students, its graduation rate has soared. And it has claimed to be the first campus in the system to have “effectively closed” the gap in graduation rates between underrepresented freshmen and the rest of the student body.

The university has invested aggressively in private fundraising and made major gains in research dollars and faculty quality. And with less room for new construction on its campus in the mid-city College Area, it obtained voter approval to build a new campus down the hill in Mission Valley.

The most high-profile piece of the Mission Valley development, the 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium, is already open, and hosting not just university teams but other San Diego squads in sports like soccer and rugby. The rest of the new campus, still under construction, is supposed to serve the city as well as the university, with new housing, a hotel, retail, an “innovation district,” and plenty of open space, including a 34-acre River Park.

Led by its two dynamic and forward-thinking public universities, San Diego, which once billed itself as “America’s Finest City,” is turning itself into a paradise for students.

Meanwhile, UC San Diego, over in La Jolla, is also busy connecting itself to San Diego. In late 2021, the UCSD-sponsored UC San Diego Blue Line, an extension of San Diego’s trolley system, opened with multiple stops on campus. Students can take a train from their dorms to downtown San Diego or all the way to the Mexican border at San Ysidro.

It’s not hard to imagine San Diego as the future flagship of the UC system. After all, UC Berkeley seems ungovernable and is at war with its neighbors. And UCLA already moved its athletics to the Big Ten, showing its shaky allegiance to the UC system.

UC San Diego often seems more nimble and more relevant than those older, more high-profile institutions. That reputation is grounded in its highly rated programs in biology, engineering, and computer science, and in the campus’ growing enrollment, increasing student diversity, and improving national rankings.

UC San Diego also shot far ahead of other campuses and institutions during the pandemic. It earned national recognition for designing its own COVID response program, called “Return to Learn,” which combined extensive testing (of people and of wastewater), monitoring, notifications, and educational tools. As a result, UCSD had more students on campus during the pandemic, while keeping infection rates far lower than the rest of the state and San Diego.

To visit the UCSD and San Diego State campuses, as I did recently, is to be struck by how connected these places are to the city, and how new these universities appear—despite the fact that San Diego State was founded in 1897, just a year after UC Berkeley.

It also made me think of my own children, the oldest of whom starts high school this fall. My wife and I met in one of those ivy-covered colleges back East, but that was a long time ago. These days, I want my kids and their friends to experience the future of higher education, so I’m hoping that, for college, they might head south, to the academic center of San Diego.


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