Highly esteemed worldwide, the University of California is among the state's most valuable assets, but it is in danger of being sharply devalued as its budget undergoes continual cuts and uncertainty.
UC President Mark Yudof hopes to bring some stability to the university by using whatever budget he is granted this year as the starting point for a five-year deal with state government, with assured funding levels for the next several years. If this sounds familiar — and unlikely to happen — you're probably thinking back to 2004 and the famous "compact" between UC and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. After a budget that required steep fee increases for UC students, Schwarzenegger pledged reliable increases over the coming years so that families could plan ahead. The compact never made UC whole, and it fell apart in 2008.
Yudof already is outlining possible ways to raise revenue and reduce expenses in bad budget years. We agree with many of these, as well as his overall priority: maintaining UC's status as an academic and research star. Some changes can be reversed quickly when times improve, but a damaged reputation would linger for many years.
An 8% tuition increase already has been approved for the fall; an additional midyear increase is possible. As part of these hikes, though, UC should revamp its financial aid system to help middle-class families who are beginning to find that private colleges, many of which offer merit scholarships, might be a better deal. Up to now, UC has given a free ride to families earning less than $80,000 a year. But many families with such incomes could afford to pay a little bit toward their children's education or take out a modest loan. Providing smaller aid packages to a larger range of students would still allow lower-income families to attend while avoiding pricing out the middle class.
We also agree with Yudof that more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition, must be recruited. And it's time for UC to seriously consider charging higher tuition at its most popular campuses, such as Berkeley and UCLA. However, Yudof also has raised the possibility of charging more for certain undergraduate majors, such as laboratory sciences. This could end up steering students away from the fields in which California most needs trained professionals. We also disagree with Yudof's plan to raise faculty salaries next year; a one-year freeze seems reasonable at such a dire time.
Above all, Yudof should consider reducing the overall enrollment of California residents at UC. Painful as that would be, it would accomplish two important goals: The university would have enough resources to provide a top education to those it has accepted. And Sacramento would be forced to acknowledge that there are unacceptable consequences to the unending cuts — especially as angry parents demand better for the state's highest-achieving students.