Editorial

UC needs a tuition hike, but also a clearer vision of its identity

The price of attending the University of California wasn’t going to stay the same forever. After keeping a lid on tuition and fees for six years, UC leaders are now seeking to raise tuition by 2.5%, or $282, and the student service fee by 5%, or $54.

The money will be used to maintain and improve undergraduate education, UC President Janet Napolitano told the Los Angeles Times editorial board, by hiring faculty and increasing the number of classes available to the growing student population. UC is ahead of schedule on its promise to enroll 10,000 more California students by 2019.

Those thousands of students require classrooms and dorms, support services and spots in classes. Of course, UC could just pack them in endlessly, raise class sizes and have students on interminable waiting lists to get into the courses they require. But then it would cease to be the University of California everyone knows, the respected research university encompassing some of the most highly regarded schools in the world. As important as educating more Californians is, it’s equally important to make sure that the quality of their education isn’t diluted.

No one likes to see the price of higher education rise, but if Napolitano is true to her word and this money is used solely to improve the education of those who pay it, the price hike is justified. There are valid concerns about the long-term funding of the university, but for the short-term, preserving UC’s quality in exchange for a small increase in tuition and fees is the right move. The Board of Regents should approve the price hike when it meets next week.

Besides, the increase won’t affect most of the students who attend, at least not for a few years. The university’s financial aid system assures that families of four earning less than $80,000 a year pay no tuition at all. And the state’s new middle-class scholarship program, launched three years ago but still being phased in, will more than cover the increased cost for many more families. Only those making more than $150,000 a year will pay the higher tuition, and spending a little more than $300 extra is something that most of them will be able to afford.

That’s all well and good for the next few years, but there is a nagging and far more important issue that state leaders have yet to address satisfactorily. It’s nothing less than defining the very identity of the University of California going forward.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Napolitano clashed over this a few years ago. The governor, who has never been a major supporter of UC, basically resisted anything that would help the university bring in more money — higher tuition, better funding from the state or admitting more out-of-state students, who bring geographic diversity to campus in addition to paying a higher tuition that helps fund financial aid for low-income Californians. Instead, Brown expressed his preference for a more austere UC, one that saves money by pushing more online courses and prodding professors into teaching more classes while engaging less in research and other academic pursuits.

That’s not a vision, though. It’s short-sighted frugality that would strip down one of the state’s best-run and most admired institutions.

Brown didn’t create the funding problem that has bedeviled UC and its students in recent years, in which the state has paid a smaller share of the cost of higher education and families have shouldered a higher burden. But he hasn’t done much to reverse it, either. In 2000-01, the state general fund paid 72% of the cost of tuition and fees; this year, that share has fallen to 38%.

And sadly, no sooner had Brown announced that the state might face a budget deficit this year than he targeted UC again by proposing to phase out the middle-class scholarships. Phase in, phase out, just like that. So much for greater access to higher education for middle-class families. 

Realistically, UC will never return to the glory days when higher education was nearly free. But California can do better than make a public university education a strain on its own middle class, and it cannot afford to let mediocrity overtake an institution that draws great minds and tremendous investment to the state. The state needs a true vision, one that is realistic yet as bold as that outlined in the Master Plan for Higher Education, and which includes major reinvestment in California’s jewel of higher education.

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