UC alumnus pushes tuition-freeze plan at California colleges

To the relief of families who dread annual tuition increases, a growing number of public and private colleges are moving to freeze those bills so that students pay the same amount in their freshman through senior years.

The idea is to give students and parents some financial stability at a time of other economic worries and mounting student debt.

The predictability pleases Joshua Deal, 19, of San Diego. He is a junior at Northern Arizona University, one of the estimated 40 schools in the nation that offer such guarantees. Unlike friends at UC or Cal State schools who worry every year about tuition hikes, “I know exactly what I’ll be paying,” Deal said. “You should never have to pay higher than what you started with.”

Tuition freeze: A July 3 article in the LATExtra section about a proposed state constitutional amendment that would freeze tuition at California’s public colleges and universities at the rate students pay when they first enroll said that the plan would apply to undergraduates. Graduate school students would be included too if the proposal wins approval.

A movement is underway to advocate bringing such agreements to California’s public campuses. A 24-year-old UC alumnus has begun gathering signatures for a proposed state constitutional amendment that would freeze undergraduate tuition at UC, Cal State and community colleges at the levels students paid when they first enrolled. Increases could occur with each incoming freshman group, the way many of the existing plans work in other states.

“It’s an unsettling and uncertain feeling when you think you are going to afford something and just skate by and suddenly somebody asks for more money you don’t have. You feel you are going to lose your investment. You feel you are going to lose your future,” said Christopher Campbell, the community college and UC Irvine graduate who is leading the effort. Tuition jumped substantially each of his three years at UC — totaling about 40% by 2011.

Critics say such pricing guarantees are marketing stunts that don’t solve the more serious problems of state funding cutbacks and runaway campus spending. They contend such plans benefit some students but increase tuition inflation for future students.

Still, some experts say they expect the plans to gain traction as colleges compete to enroll students from recession-battered families. The guarantees “hold a lot of appeal to consumers,” said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Independent Colleges and Universities. “They offer students and their parents a great sense of certainty and none of the worry about what next year’s tuition rate will be.”

Among the schools with fixed tuition over four or five years are George Washington University, the University of the South and the University of Colorado at Boulder, which provides it only to out-of-state students.

Campbell concedes it will be tough to change tuition policies here, especially since the online organization he founded, Californians for a Higher Education Contract, has little money. His group began gathering signatures in April and has only about one-tenth of the 807,615 it needs by September to place the measure on a statewide ballot, he said. In other parts of the country, similar changes were approved more easily by legislatures and governing boards, an unlikely path in California given state budget shortfalls.

Campbell’s plan does not specify how long a student could remain on fixed tuition, instead allowing it to continue if they show “satisfactory progress toward a degree” as defined by the schools.

George Washington, a large private institution that ranks among the most expensive universities in the country, began the undergraduate guarantee in 2004-05 and links it to promises that that a student’s financial aid will not drop but could rise if family circumstances change.

Louis Katz, executive vice president and treasurer at George Washington, said the guarantee, which students can keep for five years, has helped improve both freshman recruitment and graduation rates. But the change did bring initial pain: Tuition went up 16% the first year, and subsequent classes have seen rises of about 3% to what will be $45,735 a year for freshman this fall.

Northern Arizona, a state school in Flagstaff, adopted a “pledge” four years ago, and gives students eight semesters; for an extra year, students pay the fees of the class just behind them. Initially, tuition rose 12% and then averaged an additional 5% for each following group of freshman, to $9,276 a year for fall 2012.

The different tuitions for different cohorts make billing complicated, administrators complain. And such guarantees would prevent state schools from responding quickly to state budget cuts with midyear fee hikes, as UC and Cal State have done.

Georgia’s 35 public colleges and universities adopted guaranteed tuition in 2006. But only three years later, the plan was dropped for new students as state budget cuts took a toll. “It was just unsustainable,” system spokesman John Millsaps said.

More important, critics contend the guarantees increase tuition for younger students faster than if pain is shared by all. “It can have some advantages in easing uncertainties but it does not make college more affordable,” said Sandy Baum, a higher education policy analyst who is a senior fellow at George Washington’s graduate school of education. She described the freezes as recruiting tools, not “a miracle cure.”

Baylor University in Texas offers guaranteed tuition as a voluntary option set at $33,710 for students starting this year, compared with $30,586 for other incoming freshmen. As a result, less than 7% of freshmen chose it. “It is promoted as a budgeting tool, not a savings plan,” administrator Jason T. Lloyd said. A recent graduate would have paid just $270 less in tuition over the last four years than those who risked annual increases.

California’s public university leaders say guarantees for four years are not feasible now. A current plan to freeze tuition for one year at state campuses depends on voters approving a tax increase in November. Even if that wins, nothing is certain for later years, given the state’s economic problems.

Campbell’s initiative “makes more sense when you’re in a stable funding environment,” UC system spokeswoman Dianne Klein said. “If you have the volatility that we’ve had in the past few years, you’d get wild swings [in tuition] between classes that lead to their own problems.” Campbell said he believes California’s public colleges simply shift the burden of that volatility to students without much thought to the effects.

“Students make a commitment to the colleges. These universities in turn make no commitment to them,” said Campbell, a San Clemente resident who works as a store shipping clerk and is scheduled to attend UC Irvine Law School in the fall. His proposal, he notes, would not cover graduate or law schools.