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Unfortunately, the proposed UC tuition hike is justified

Unfortunately, the proposed UC tuition hike is justified
A tour guide leads a group of students past the Computer Science building and Engineering Tower at the University of California-Irvine in Irvine, Calif. on Aug. 2, 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

Another year, another tuition increase? For the second year in a row after a six-year tuition freeze, the University of California Board of Regents is scheduled Wednesday to discuss a proposed $324 jump in tuition and student fees. That’s on top of last year’s $336 hike. Taking room and board into account, and additional campus fees (not including books), a year at UCLA already costs more than $28,000.

The proposed hike wouldn’t affect everyone. Financial aid covers the full tuition bill for 60% of UC students. But middle-class families who don’t qualify for full scholarships will start feeling the bite if the regents intend to make these price hikes an annual thing. They’re beginning to add up.

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Are they justified, or aren’t they? There’s no easy answer. On the one hand, Gov. Jerry Brown, who has had an often-testy relationship with the university system, is convinced that it hasn’t done everything it can to reduce spending. And he’s not entirely wrong. After years of denial, UC leaders only recently acknowledged that many employees are overpaid compared with others who do similar work for the state.

On the other hand, UC remains an educational powerhouse and is undoubtedly one of the state’s best-run public institutions. That takes money.

UC has managed to retain its academic luster and the admiration of the world despite recession-era cutbacks and significantly less lavish budgets than private universities enjoy. It attracts research dollars and brilliant minds to the state — as well as businesses and, sometimes, even entire industries.

Despite what a state audit implied last year, UC President Janet Napolitano is not hanging on to tens of millions of dollars in surplus money. What’s more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the state’s per-student funding for UC has dropped to well under half of what it was in 1990.

It would be great if UC were free for all its students. But unfortunately, tuition is part of what UC must count on.


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Indeed, Brown’s proposed state budget for next year offers a relatively stingy 3% increase in funding for UC, compared with 4% in recent years. The governor favors an on-the-cheap model of higher education, complete with plenty of low-cost online courses and professors who willingly take lower salaries because they like the work. That’s not the right model for UC.

It would be great if UC were free for all its students. But unfortunately, tuition is part of what UC must count on if it is to continue providing an outstanding education.

Of course, the tuition hike would be questionable if it put a real burden on families that couldn’t afford it. Instead, the university plans to provide enough money so that students whose families’ income is $100,000 a year or less will pay no tuition at all. The state’s middle-class scholarship program will soften the blow for families earning more than that; it picks up 10% to 40% of tuition and fees for families with incomes between $100,000 and $165,000. And families with more money than that should be able to afford the extra few hundred dollars without too much strain.

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