John A. Pérez understands both power and poverty. The son of a sheet-metal worker from Mexico, Pérez grew up in what were the low-income neighborhoods of El Sereno and Highland Park in the 1970s. A labor union organizer, he was elected to the Assembly in 2008, representing areas including Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo and parts of South Los Angeles. In 2010, he rose to state Assembly speaker, serving for four years, and in July he began a one-year term as chairman of the University of California Board of Regents. Pérez takes the helm at a time of critical decisions for the nation’s premier public university system: selecting a new president, weighing potential tuition increases and determining whether to eliminate the SAT test as an admission requirement. In a recent interview with The Times, Pérez shared his thoughts on some of these pressing issues.
Tuition increase? Maybe
Regents are discussing a plan to raise tuition once for each incoming class but keep it flat after that. Higher tuition would, in part, generate more funds for financial aid, which would help students better manage the high cost of living in California.
Over the last several years we’ve avoided having tuition increases, and I think that’s been the right decision. But on an ongoing forward basis, I think we have to look at two questions: Total cost, which is not just cost of tuition, but total cost of attendance. And so where for six out of the last seven years, there’s been no increase in tuition, during those same years there’s been an increase in non tuition-related costs: housing, books, food.
What we’re seeing is that the increase in the non-tuition-related costs are going up at a faster rate than tuition-related costs, which is putting a strain on our ability to cover that cost. We have to find a way to find revenues to expand our financial aid tools. The two most obvious sources for that are either an increase in direct state investment with an expectation that some of that money be put directly in financial aid or some low predictable rate of tuition increase. One-third of every tuition dollar goes back to financial aid.
My values say that when a family looks at all those places that their student gets accepted to, they ought to be able to have a clear sense of what it’s going to cost them. Not just the top-line cost, but the real family cost — what the family contributes, what the student contributes. And so I am predisposed against voting for any tuition increase that impacts current students. That means from my worldview, the only two options that make sense are increased state investment or a very modest cohort-based increase where upon admission, you’re guaranteed what the rate is for your time as a student.
More state money coming? Hopefully
UC’s relations with Sacramento took a nosedive a few years ago over funding tensions and a series of critical audits but have been on the mend.
The Legislature just approved a bond measure for the ballot next year, which if the voters approve, it would result in $2 billion of investment in physical infrastructure for the university. That’s huge. In each of the last several years, in addition to incremental increases in ongoing funding for the university, there’s been the ability to get one-time funds. And so the state has expressed its support in lots of ways: direct increases in appropriation, direct increases in one-time funding and the fact that the state is more aggressive at funding state-based financial aid than any other state in the country. I would love for the greatest percentage of that money to be direct unrestricted funds to the university, but in whichever way it expresses itself, it is a win when the state creates more investment in higher education.
Then it’s a question of what dialogue we have about our vision for expanding access economically, geographically in every possible way and how we hold ourselves accountable to make our students successful. I think that a joint vision for where we take the university is what will encourage even more aggressive investment by the state.
Standardized tests? Skeptical
UC faculty members are reviewing whether to drop the ACT and SAT as an admission requirement, which is increasingly seen as an unfair barrier to students who don’t test well or don’t have the means to access or pay for pricey test preparation.
I still don’t want to prejudge the [faculty] work that is being done. I think the evidence that is out there causes some really important questions. The initial information that I’ve seen shows that the highest predictive value of an SAT isn’t in how well a student will do in school, but how well they were able to avail themselves of prep material. And access to that prep material is still disproportionately tied to family income.
That’s not to say that there’s not an infrastructure to get online but that not every family has equal access to be able to pay.... And not all schools have equal online infrastructure for their students to get access to materials. So, if you have material available but no pathway to avail yourself of it, that’s not particularly meaningful.
I’m anxious to hear from the faculty and from others of what their research has suggested. But … the board is anxious to get on and have this conversation, and we don’t want to suffer from analysis paralysis.
Key priority? Serving all Californians
The California Constitution requires that the UC Board of Regents broadly reflects the state’s diversity. Pérez takes that charge as a guiding star for the 10-campus UC system.
Working to make sure that we have broader representation in every possible way economically, racially, geographically are really key messages. One of the places where we fall short is geographically. When you look at the Central Valley, when you look at the Inland Empire, when you look at extreme Northern California, we don’t have the same footprint both in terms of campuses and in terms of students that we serve. We have to, even in places where we don’t have a physical campus, make sure that we have deep roots and that we create pathways for students from those areas to come and avail themselves of a university education. I think that’s an important part of my view for how we hold ourselves accountable to our public mission.