There's nothing like a possible tuition increase at the University of California to stir things up. Students rush out to protest; regents and politicians, parents and professors engage in robust — sometimes enraged — debate. And finally, if all goes right, alternative suggestions begin to emerge, ranging from the weird to the intriguing to "Please, can we forget you just said that?"
That's what's been happening this year since UC President Janet Napolitano ushered her five-year, 28% tuition hike through the board of regents with the proviso that it would go into effect only if the state failed to increase UC's funding. In a sense, it has already been a political triumph, because she has succeeded in making UC, and higher education generally, one of the big discussions of the new legislative session, where before it was a largely ignored footnote.
State leaders suddenly seemed to realize that California's great research university system was in danger of crumbling from long neglect and that Gov. Jerry Brown's mechanistic solutions — granting more three-year degrees, dramatically de-emphasizing scholarly research and turning UC into more of a transfer school for community college students than a full university experience — would hasten the process dramatically.
Not all of the solutions offered by Sacramento lawmakers are superior. One, by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is, if anything, worse than Brown's proposals. He favors a constitutional amendment to strip UC of its longtime independence and give the Legislature significant though vague authority over its operations.
If UC were a failure, that might be worth discussing. But despite eroding state support (and despite the decline in quality that will be inevitable if new resources don't materialize), the university has so far managed to remain one of the most successful public institutions in the state. It provides more financial aid today than in the past and educates more students who are the first in their family to attend college — all while maintaining an outstanding national reputation. Besides, politicians make notoriously lousy overseers for colleges. The last thing UC needs is legislators interfering by introducing political priorities into academic study.
Another set of proposals in the Legislature involves the middle-class scholarship, a new program that provides limited financial aid to families earning between $80,000 and $150,000 who have students at UC and California State University. (Families with incomes of less than $80,000 pay no tuition at all.) Oddly, one of the legislative proposals would speed up implementation of the program; the other would phase it out.
In truth, the middle-class scholarships don't provide very substantial aid for most families, and even if the program were trimmed back rather than eliminated, that pot of money could yield substantial sums to help the two university systems.
There are also proposals in both houses of the Legislature to charge more money to UC's 21,000 or so out-of-state students, another worthwhile idea. Out-of-state students already pay more in tuition than it costs to educate them — $23,000 on top of the $12,000 or so plus fees that California residents pay — but the total is still lower than what other selective public universities charge out-of-state students. The $4,000 to $5,000 extra being proposed might be overly ambitious — applications from non-Californians could begin to decline — but even if the university charged only half that, it would raise more than $40 million a year. At the same time, UC also should cap out-of-state enrollment so that it can add more state residents without overcrowding the schools.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) has proposed paying students an "incentive grant" to take more credits per semester so that they are more likely to finish college on time. But this isn't needed at UC, where the average completion time has dropped to 4.1 years.
There are other proposals in Sacramento for reducing UC's costs and still others to increase state funding (though several come with potentially problematic conditions).
Napolitano was a surprise choice for UC president because she lacked the traditional academic background. But her strategic skill and political instincts have enabled her to pull off a bold act of brinkmanship. Because of it, perhaps the Legislature will stop following Brown's lead and recognize that UC is a jewel worth preserving.