Sen. Ricardo Lara reacted to the recent UC Board of Regents action to raise tuition by proposing that the Legislature be empowered to veto such increases. The senator argued that the board “appears to be out of touch with average working-class families.”
But was it not the Legislature that decreased the public subsidy to the University of California system by almost 24 percent between 2007 and 2013? Is it perhaps Lara who is out of touch with reality?
This scenario depicts a type of “blame game” that occurs frequently when the Legislature decreases support to UC. The regents react by raising tuition to recoup some of the lost revenue. The Legislature then berates the regents for raising the student share of the cost of education, seemingly oblivious that it was their action that made it necessary.
The irony of this back and forth is that both groups have the same laudable goal – to promote excellence and access. Rather than perennially repeating the blame game, wouldn’t it be more productive to focus on real issues, such as how much a high-quality education should cost and who should pay for it?
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The governor believes that UC is inefficient and suffers from bloated costs. Since 1990-91, the average amount spent to educate a student at UC has fallen by about 13 percent. So, why is there so much pressure to raise tuition? Over the same period, the state’s share of expenditures has fallen substantially – by more than 50 percent.
At the end of the day, someone has to pay. The Legislature, not the Board of Regents, has decided that it should be students who pay more.
There is always concern that a rise in tuition decreases access to education. But higher tuition combined with targeted financial aid can actually increase resident student access. When tuition rises, a higher percentage of the increased revenue is allocated as financial aid to lower, rather than upper, income students.
At UC, between 2001 and 2012, the average increase for lower-income families in the (inflation adjusted) net cost of obtaining a degree rose by about $500, or less than one-half percent per year. Higher-income families (more than $155,000 a year) paid about $11,000 more, an increase of about 5 percent per year. At UC, even when tuition rises, the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan guarantees full tuition and fee payment for students whose family income is less than $80,000.
Moreover, with a low tuition policy, UC first enrolls students the state supports and then admits higher paying non-residents to obtain desperately needed revenue. Some California residents are willing to pay higher tuition to attend UC, but they are not allowed to do so. Paradoxically, the desire to increase access via low tuition actually denies access to this group of students.
The insidious consequence of a low tuition policy is that eventually quality diminishes. Without the resources necessary to remain competitive, the university cannot attract top faculty, students and staff. The alternative of a higher tuition, higher financial aid model has been used by private universities for decades. The effect on quality is striking. In 1988, three of the top 10 universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings were public. In 2014, not only were there were no public universities in the top 10, there were none in the top 20.
UC President Janet Napolitano hopes that legislators realize “if we want more California students admitted, we need to pay for that.” Increasing state funding is difficult given many competing demands. But freezing resident tuition for the last three years, providing less than offsetting state support and leaning hard on non-residents is not a sustainable approach.
The UC regents proposal offers the option for the Legislature to provide necessary funding in lieu of tuition increases. Still, the proposal to increase tuition with targeted increases in financial aid can both increase access and enhance quality.
The alternative under a low tuition, low subsidy policy is to watch UC slide from its prominence among the best universities in the world. When that happens, there will be plenty of blame to go around.
Andrew J. Policano is director of the Center for Investment and Wealth Management at the University of California, Irvine.