The danger of UC autonomy


When California’s highest-achieving students apply to the University of California, the chief factors determining which campus they attend should be which school is the best fit and what qualifications they have for admission, not how much their parents can afford to pay. So the UC regents should be very wary of a report out of UC Berkeley proposing new levels of autonomy for each of the system’s 10 schools.

That autonomy, according to the proposal coauthored by Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, would include the ability to set tuition, within certain limits, and to determine how many students to accept from out of state.

Such freedoms would benefit UC Berkeley, with its worldwide reputation, as well as a couple of other campuses, including UCLA. As the most sought-after schools within the UC system, they could demand a higher price from California applicants and still fill their classes with outstanding students. They could bring in even more money by accepting fewer Californians and increasing the number of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition. The extra money could be used to attract top faculty and provide courses.


As much as the schools deserve and need adequate resources, though, the effect on students as well as on other UC campuses would be a bad one. The annual cost of a UC education, including room and board, already hovers between $25,000 and $30,000. That’s a bargain compared with the full cost of many private colleges, but still a big nut for many middle-class families. (Students whose family income is less than $80,000 a year usually receive a free ride on tuition.)

Would Berkeley and UCLA become campuses of rich students and poor scholarship students, while middle-class kids would be relegated to the less competitive schools? It’s possible the schools would make up at least some of the difference through financial aid, but many families would inevitably be left out of that equation. And many students wouldn’t even apply if the price seemed too high. Meanwhile, other campuses with less star power would be left to fend for themselves, and the inequities among campuses would probably grow.

Individual campuses already make many decisions about course offerings, private fundraising and so forth. There might be additional ways in which more autonomy would be helpful, but the report falls short of making a good argument for its key proposal. It speaks generically of the growing role of private funding and the fact that local administrators know more about their campus, but doesn’t provide evidence that the current system has worked poorly or explain in what way local freedom would fix any problems.