When I started telling people I was going off to California next fall to work on my doctorate, no small number of them mentioned the UC system as a coherent entity, especially compared to the UNC system.
And I've been thinking for a while about the two systems. I'm starting to wonder if the largest difference is size.
The California university system is a three-tiered system, with the University of California (10 schools) on top with core doctoral/research oriented programs, California State University (23 schools) for the bulk of four-year programs, and the 110-campus community college system.
North Carolina's university system is divided into two groups - two-year and four-year institutions. The UNC system has 16 campuses, while there are 58 community colleges. Of course, the standards and descriptions are all different, so I'll toss out the specialized schools and the not-quite arbitrary UC/CSU divide and go with the Carnigie classifications.
As best as I can tell:
CA public schools include 10 doctoral/research universities, 19 master's universities, 1 baccalaureate college, and 110 associate's colleges.
NC public schools include 5 doctoral/research universities, 7 master's universities, 3 baccalaureate colleges, and 58 associate's colleges.
So some fiddly bits aside (namely, the balance between master's/baccalaureate schools), the NC university system has almost exactly half the campuses as the California system within each of the CA system's three "tiers." The NC schools are on average two thirds the size; the UC+CSU schools enroll 600,000, while the UNC schools enroll 200,000; the community colleges are balanced 2,500,000 to 800,000.
California itself has four times the population of NC, interestingly enough, making the NC system twice as dense per capita in public campuses and a third again as dense in per capita public enrollment; I suspect California probably has more private school enrollment, but I would consider the fact that NC's schools are more finely seeded across the state a point in NC's favor.
Special effort has been made to render the system accessible to residents, in particular transfer from the community colleges to four-year institutions, and tuition is very affordable for in-state students within both systems. In-state tuition within other states' public universities often rivals out-of-state tuition at UNC system schools, for example, something frequently pointed out to me by Georgians attending ASU.
In North Carolina, in-state students are ensured an "in" by capping out-of-state enrollments (the precise level of the cap is a hot political subject of debate); in California, the top eigthth and third of graduating high school seniors are supposed to be able to get into the UC and CSU schools, respectively. A bigger system? Yes. Better? Perhaps so; certainly, its schools have on average a better reputation.
But is "part of the UC system" going to turn out to be all that different a feeling than "part of the UNC system"? I'm not so sure, and I strongly suspect that with the common pressures, interests, and the demographic shifts in play, the differences between California and North Carolina public higher education are going to become smaller, rather than larger, over time.