The tuition freeze at California’s public universities is set this fall to stretch into its fifth year. But nothing lasts forever.
The University of California and California State University are now looking beyond the end of their budget deal with Gov. Jerry Brown, which will hold costs flat through next summer. UC has tentatively proposed at least two years of increases beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, and CSU launched a discussion about the future of its financial stability last week at a meeting of its governing board.
The conversations sound a bit different this time around: With state funding on the upswing, the systems are looking to get out in front of the next crisis. Both appear to be embracing the idea of smaller annual fee hikes tied to inflation, an approach long recommended by the state’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst.
“Our goal is not to increase tuition. It’s to have a more planned road map for tuition,” said Steve Relyea, executive vice chancellor and chief financial officer for CSU. “Can we even out these spikes and have regular, smaller increases that keep the university affordable but give students and their families the ability to plan ahead of time?”
UC and CSU both doubled their tuition and mandatory fees over the last decade, and more than tripled them since the 2000-01 academic year.
It may not be an idea Californians are ready to embrace after the dramatic fee hikes of the last decade. UC and CSU both doubled their average tuition and mandatory fees over the last decade, and more than tripled them since the 2000-01 academic year. That’s a faster rate than at many comparable institutions, though California tuition remains lower than at most of those same schools.
University of California Student Association President Kevin Sabo objects to UC tying tuition to inflation without a commitment from the state to make similar increases in its contributions to university budgets. He added that there is not enough transparency, or control for students, in how the additional money would be used.
“This automatic mechanism isn’t democratic,” Sabo said.
But the universities and some experts argue that providing a more structured fee schedule would let schools keep pace with their rising costs, including employee salaries and pensions, long-delayed infrastructure projects, and demands to educate more students.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office has been recommending for years that California set a tuition policy guiding how costs are shared between the state and students. The LAO contends it would spread expenses more evenly over time and create accountability about what portion of the price of their education students should bear.
It often points to steep increases that have followed extended freezes: After seven years of flat or declining tuition from 1995 to 2002, for example, the cost jumped by 79 percent over the next four.
“When tuition hasn’t grown for five or six years, it’s a little easier for the state to impose a higher fee increase,” said the LAO’s Paul Golaszewski, who analyzes UC’s budget.
79 Percentage by which public university tuition costs increased in the first four years following California’s last extended freeze
Debbie Cochrane, research director at The Institute for College Access and Success, welcomes a public dialogue about what universities need. She pointed out that California has some of the most generous financial aid in the country, allowing students to graduate with the fourth-lowest average loan debt among states.
“Tuition doesn’t have to be a bad word,” she said.
UC kicked off California’s most recent debate in November 2014, when it announced a plan for five years of fee hikes that would have raised its price by more than a quarter unless the state boosted its budget allocation. After massive student protests and a very public showdown with Brown, a deal was struck for four years of funding increases and two more years of flat tuition.
That freeze ends after the 2016-17 academic year, however, and the university is incorporating into its long-term financial planning an assumption that tuition increases will then resume, generally pegged to inflation. Though UC’s Board of Regents must formally approve raising fees, it is expected to do so for the final two years of the budget deal with Brown and could continue increases after that.
“It was critical to UC that we reach an understanding with the governor about the need for moderate and predictable tuition increases for the university’s financial sustainability in the long run,” spokesman Steve Montiel said in a statement.
This automatic mechanism isn’t democratic.
University of California Student Association President Kevin Sabo
CSU is still figuring out what it might do. In a report issued to the Board of Trustees last month, a task force suggested using inflation as a benchmark for considering annual tuition increases.
Trustees pushed back on the idea, which they said would be unfair to students and make it easier for the Legislature to prioritize other funding. During the public comment period, one speaker mockingly presented Chancellor Timothy White with a “Privatizer of the Year” award.
Relyea said the university hasn’t taken any action yet and will not without the consultation of lawmakers and students.
California State Student Association President Taylor Herren noted that even a small percentage tuition increase can amount to hundreds of dollars, a big burden for many students. She said the real responsibility for funding CSU falls to the Legislature, but that fee increases which are directly spent on improving student success and education might be reasonable.
“If I can get out in four years because I pay a little more in tuition,” Herren said, “that is a good investment.”