It's a large system, and it's designed to weed out the weak, but the overall experience is inherently valuable because the challenges are great. The school itself isn't the only attraction; there's also the competition, the great bookstores and libraries, the interesting alumni with their interesting businesses, and the overall environment. I spent a lot of my time there working to earn money for school, and socializing and partying, and basically recovering from being a high school spazz. Academics took a back seat, and I switched to an easier course of study, but the competition kept me on my toes.
I actually wasn't much of a student, and instead, spent a lot of my mental energy doing "self study" in the libraries (which are all top notch), building electronics projects, hiking the hills, and learning to write (some) on the internet. None of this would have been possible were it not for the financial aid checks, student loans, high paying jobs nearby, and close proximity of all these great opportunities. Thanks Cal, and the state of California!
I know some people who make fun of Cal grads, because so many are willing to follow their odd dreams... but I also meet so many folks who have a lot of education and money, who just gripe about how unsatisfied they are with life. Which is worse? Berkeley is a place where you can teach yourself to be free, because you learn about so many different ways of being. It also provides enough academic challenges and has a sufficient reputation to assure you of living middle class suburban lifestyle, if you choose to climb the corporate ladder.
Yesterday, on the freeway, I saw a slightly beat up truck with a bent fender, piled up with weird gear, and a "CAL ALUMNI" license plate frame. The guy looked like he was running some kind of business out of his pickup, or running a work errand. Who knows. You don't often see a UCLA or Stanford plate frame on a pickup, especially one that's actually used for real work. I instinctively heckled my passenger with a "Go Bears!"
I was reminded of the one time when I was at Cal, when three of us undergrads were driving up the freeway from SoCal, and blew out a tire. The spare was the wrong size wheel. How screwed is that. We were stuck on the median. Nobody stopped to help, except for one guy. You guessed it: a UC Berkeley student. (We eventually re-balanced the car onto three wheels and managed to get to a gas station.)
Also, the "liberal" rep is severely overstated. Yes, there are a lot of radicals there, but, the most famous writer to come out of Cal from when I was there is Max Boot, the arch-conservative, nationalistic warhawk, and defender of imperialism. I'm quite embarrassed about this, but, such is life.
When I was there, Cal also had a gun club, and numerous holy roller groups, so, don't go saying it's a liberal school. It is, or was, a diverse school, and there's a range of opinions there.
I think that the cessation of Affirmative Action was a big mistake. School should be about more than testing and information overload. Yes, the retention rate of these students is lower than for others, but, it's not for lack of intelligence, but culture shock and lack of academic support. Some did make it, though, and for them, it's worth it. Moreover, the rich mix of re-entry, working class, wealthy, influential, and middle class people was, in itself, valuable. College is just four (or five) years of life. The "real world" is often full of unwritten rules and regulations that keep people "in their place", and college should be a place to experience something else. This should go double for top schools like Cal.
One other thing... the food in Berkeley is amazing. It's some of the best food I've ever eaten in my life. I can still recall the flavor of Cheeseboard pizza, Peet's coffee, Flint's BBQ, and Top Dogs. The salads at some restaurants were awesome. The beer was delicious, and cheap.
Epilogue: I graduated, and was still a spazz and a misfit, but a much better person.