In the face of massive budget cuts, California university leaders are turning again to students and their parents a strategy that appears to be most burdensome for those in the middle class.
Both of the state's public university systems are voting this week on tuition increases that would put the price tag for the coming fall about 20 percent higher than it was a year earlier.
California State University trustees will vote today on a proposal to raise tuition to $5,472. On Thursday, University of California regents will vote on raising tuition to $12,192. Those figures don't include books, housing, or campus-based fees that average around $1,000 a year.
In both systems, the tuition increases are a response to the state budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed last month, which cut higher education by $1.3 billion and created the possibility of more cuts in the middle of the year.
The cumulative increases at both systems over the past decade are well over 200 percent, and middle income families are feeling the squeeze.
Consider Greg Washington, 21, who is going into his senior year at Cal State Fullerton. He lives with his folks a police department investigator and a tennis coach and commutes 20 miles to school.
The family earns too much to qualify for financial aid, Washington said, but not enough to easily absorb tuition that is soaring far faster than inflation.
"I'm that group right in the middle that's really impacted," said Washington, president of the California State Student Association.
California's low-income students benefit from financial aid that covers tuition entirely, even as it rises. At CSU, students from families earning up to $70,000 get grants to cover tuition, while at UC, grants cover tuition for students from families with incomes up to $80,000.
UC has also pledged to pay the proposed increase in tuition for a year for families earning up to $120,000. It's one attempt to ameliorate a tough situation for middle-class students a group that makes up a shrinking portion of students at UC.
Between 1999 and 2009, the portion of UC students from middle-class families dropped, while the portion of students from low-income and high-income families grew, according to a recent report by the university.
"The decline in the proportion of students from middle-income families may be caused by a number of factors," says UC's accountability report for 2011. "It will be the subject of more intensive analysis in the coming years as the university watches this trend."
The report says the trend may be due to demographic changes in California that are putting more families at the extremes of the income distribution, leaving fewer to occupy the middle. But it also says the drop in middle-class students "could be due to middle-class families perceiving that UC is no longer affordable."
UC tuition will have gone up by 242 percent over 10 years, if the latest tuition proposals are approved. At CSU, the increase over the same time period will be 263 percent if trustees approve the tuition proposal before them today.
Both systems have seen massive cuts in state funding during the last decade, even as they've brought on more students. For the first time this year, UC will bring in more revenue from tuition than from state coffers.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called it a "terrible trend." The Sacramento Democrat, who helped craft the budget plan that's led to the latest tuition increases, said rising tuition "keeps me tossing and turning."
But he said lawmakers had little choice. Unable to secure Republican support to extend tax increases, Democrats had to make cuts. And, Steinberg said, higher education is one of few parts of the state budget the Legislature controls.
"So many other parts of state government and local government are constitutionally protected," he said. "There's not all that much left of discretionary spending."
Claudia Magana, president of the UC Student Association, is feeling the pinch of that decision. The UC Santa Cruz senior said she has made it through three years of school without taking out any loans. She gets help from her parents who run a small business in Southern California and works two jobs in student government. Magana, 21, said she doesn't qualify for grants because of her parents' income.
But business lately isn't so great for them, Magana said. And with tuition about to rise by nearly $1,900, Magana has taken out loans for the first time and decided to cut back on her education.
"I was originally planning on staying a fifth year, but I'm dropping my education minor because I can't stick around," Magana said. "It will just be too expensive."
UC AND CSU ARE TAKING ACTIONS TO REDUCE COSTS
Increasing enrollment of out-of-state students
Increasing class size
Reducing library hours
Reducing course offerings; consolidating or eliminating degree programs
Expanding "self-supporting" academic programs that are funded entirely by tuition and get no state funding
Cutting enrollment by 10,000 students
Reducing total number of employees by 4,125
Reducing employee travel