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Merced campuses team up to build joint $100M student housing complex

The proposed housing complex for Merced College and UC Merced students is shown in an artist’s rendering.
UC Merced
The proposed housing complex for Merced College and UC Merced students is shown in an artist’s rendering.

MERCED (CVJC and KVPR) — Braulio Bustos-Guzman just started his freshman year at Merced College, but he’s already looking ahead at his options for transferring to a four-year university.

The 18-year-old business administration student could head to a bigger city, like Sacramento or Fresno. Or, he could stay local and attend UC Merced, though he would have to figure out his living situation.

Right now, the graduate of Merced’s Golden Valley High School shares a five-bedroom home with nine other family members. On a good day, it’s seven. Either way, the busy house isn’t always conducive to studying. In a town where rental vacancies remain tight, stories like Bustos-Guzman’s are not rare.

“I feel like I can't focus unless I'm at school,” he said. “So I usually go to school earlier to study with my friends.”

A new program could encourage community college students like Bustos-Guzman to transfer to UC Merced rather than going elsewhere, while also providing options for affordable student housing.

This spring, UC Merced and Merced College officials are set to begin construction on an apartment-style building with capacity for nearly 500 beds.

The new building is a cornerstone of “The Merced Promise,” a partnership between Merced College and UC Merced to smooth the transition for students moving from the community college to the university.

The project is the culmination of talks between UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sanchez Muñoz and Merced College President Chris Vitellito address an acute housing shortage affecting all residents, particularly those who earn lower-than-average incomes.

Local education officials such as Mike McCandless, vice president of student services at Merced College, said the project is a win for retaining local transfer students in the Valley. It will also provide more local student housing, which in recent years has been drastically low.

“One of the things that we really want to work against is that brain drain where our best and brightest are (going) through our high schools here and then they leave,” McCandless said.

After hearing about the project’s plans, Bustos-Guzman said he added UC Merced to his list of transfer options. “I’d just be right around the corner from home,” he told CVJC.

Braulio Bustos-Guzman gets to school early to prepare for an exam. The quiet floor in Merced College’s library allows the local student space to focus.
Rachel Livinal
Braulio Bustos-Guzman gets to school early to prepare for an exam. The quiet floor in Merced College’s library allows the local student space to focus.

Project split evenly between schools

Fully funded by a $100 million allocation from the state’s general fund, the housing project is a unique partnership between the University of California and a California Community College campus – the first collaboration of its kind in the San Joaquin Valley.

Plans call for a mix of studio, two- and four-bedroom apartments, along with a shaded courtyard and outdoor meeting and assembly space. The facility is set to be built on UC Merced’s campus, replacing a parking lot on the west side of campus near existing student housing.

UC Merced and Merced College students would fill the beds equally. Monthly rent estimates range from just under $600 per bed to $700.

The state Legislature gave its final stamp of approval for the project funding on Aug. 30, dividing the money evenly between the two campuses.

The project is also meant to increase a sense of belonging for Merced College students eyeing transfer to UC Merced.

McCandless said Merced College students who live at the complex would see perks special to on-campus life such as access to UC Merced sports games, the recreational center and the dining hall, to entice those students who might otherwise leave the area to continue their education.

“They may have a little trepidation about being three, four, five, six hours from mom and dad and going to a large city, but still thinking they want the college experience,” McCandless said.

“We can provide the best two years of education that you can get anywhere, right at Merced College, but you can still get that four-year experience by participating in the Merced Promise and the Merced Promise housing program.”

Potential for more transfer students

For transfer students, the path to a University of California campus hasn’t always been easy.

Charles Nies, UC Merced’s vice chancellor for students affairs, says that’s partially because of differentiation in eligibility requirements between the system’s nine campuses.

While the California State University system has taken decades to create an easier path to their campuses, Nies acknowledged UC campuses have not been as quick to act. He’s hopeful the Merced Promise program will help change that.

“Around 200 to 220 transfer students come to the campus each year,” Nies said. “We believe we've got the capacity to double that number easily.”

In 2021, UC Merced established a projected goal to enroll 11,800 students by the 2023-2024 academic year. The campus’ strategic plan is aiming for 15,000 students by 2030.

Right now, the campus has an enrollment of 9,147 students according to university officials. “We believe we’ve put in place the necessary infrastructure to achieve (the strategic plan’s) goal and support that number of students on campus,” said Alyssa Johansen, UC Merced public information officer.

Nies said the new housing project will include an office of administrative services that could help streamline the process for transfer students. The campus is also considering moving their transfer center closer to the project.

Valley lawmakers acted to protect funding

On behalf of local education officials, State Sen. Anna Caballero and Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria, both Valley Democrats, said they made a point of protecting the $100 million for the project, even in the face of a potential budget deficit earlier this year.

A report from the state’s Legislative Analyst Office initially said removing the Merced housing funding was a “budget solution.”

Luckily, the necessary plans and studies for the project were already completed, making the project almost ready to begin construction, Soria said.

She and Caballero helped coordinate what she called “critical meetings” during the budget process to make sure the funding stayed in the budget. “So luckily, not only were the dollars preserved, the budget actually called out specifically this project, which is remarkable,” Soria said in a phone interview with CVJC.

Caballero said the project is important because Merced County, like most of California, has a lack of affordable housing. Merced’s shortage is exacerbated by the region’s lower-paying jobs.

“Anytime you build a UC campus, you're going to end up with the need for student housing,” Caballero said. “What happens is that, as the college grows, the ability of the college to house the students on its site becomes less and less and it starts impacting the community that they're located in.”

Who’ll qualify to live in the building?

McCandless said housing eligibility for the project will be determined using a nine-tier “Waterfall System” of student demographics ranked from highest to lowest priority.

The highest priority is given to income-eligible, academically qualified Merced College students who either have or intend to enroll at UC Merced.

From there, the enrollment structure will work its way down the list of priority students, ranging from community college students regardless of income to undergraduate and graduate students at UC Merced.

The new housing complex at UC Merced is expected to be completed in 2025. For more information about Merced Promise, visit UC Merced’s website.

Brianna Vaccari is an accountability and watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2021 by the James B. McClatchy Foundation.
Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.