For thousands high-achieving American students of Asian descent, the promise of a highly selective American university seemed achievable. If they had great grades and test scores, they were obviously qualified to be admitted.

Except now such students are finding that many American public universities don’t want them. They do, however, want students who are actually from Asia, particularly China.

According to an article by Oliver Staley at Bloomberg:

The University of California system, rocked by budget cuts, is enrolling record numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay almost twice that of in-state residents. Among those being squeezed out: high-achieving Asian-Americans, many of them children of immigrants, who for decades flocked to the state’s elite public colleges to move up the economic ladder.

As a result, almost 200 freshmen from China enrolled [at the University of California, San Diego] in 2011, up from 16 in 2009, a 12-fold increase. At the same time, the number of Asian-American Californians enrolled fell 29 percent to 1,230, from 1,723 in 2009. The 2009 figure is from the UC system’s office because San Diego didn’t have it available.

This might seem odd. Such students are, after all, likely to have greater problems with the English language. But they also pay full price. That’s why public universities want them. In 2009, according to the article, the UC system told UC San Diego to admit 500 fewer California residents and fill the spots with out-of-state or foreign students.

The reason for this is that such students pay more. Tuition for California students is $12,686 a year. Out-of-state students pay $22,878 more.

The pressure to enroll Chinese students is even more intense. Because such students generally pay full price to attend college, enrolling them can be very useful for cash-strapped public schools.

But then, the university system exists primarily to educate California residents. For students who worked hard and got good scores, being denied admission due to California’s budget problems can seem awfully unfair.

“There’s no reason why someone from another country should come and take my son’s spot,” Veronia Zavala told Staley. Her son is an A student and she is a California taxpayer. It’s their University of California.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer