Napolitano-Brown standoff persists, and students lose

UC President Janet Napolitano at her office in Oakland last year.
UC President Janet Napolitano at her office in Oakland last year. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

March is home-stretch month for college admissions. It’s a nail-biter of a time, as legions of high school seniors and would-be community college transfers wait for the next chapters of their lives to get underway.

On Tuesday, however, University of California President Janet Napolitano ratcheted up the fear factor for the nearly 200,000 students who have applied to a UC campus for the fall semester.

In testimony before an Assembly budget subcommittee, Napolitano said that unless state funding is increased beyond the 4 percent hike Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for next year, the university will have to cap in-state admissions at last year’s levels, and add 2,000 new slots for out-of-state students. UCLA and UC Berkeley would maintain their current ratios of about 20 percent out-of-state students.

That, apparently, is on top of a planned 5 percent tuition increase – and in defiance of Brown, whose proposed raise for the UC was conditioned on no more out-of-state enrollment.

Nonresident admissions pay a premium of about $23,000 on top of tuition, and subsidize the tuition and financial aid for in-state students. Letting more of them into the UC is one of the few ways the university has been able to make up for the state’s long slide in public funding.

But parents fear that out-of-state students are cutting into slots that could go to Californians, and, as Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said Tuesday, “UC’s job is to educate California students, not wait-list them.”

It’s another Brown-Napolitano standoff. And it’s troubling for both that it’s happening again.

Napolitano is wrong to make bargaining chips out of students, even if, as she notes, the UC’s nine campuses have to send out their acceptance letters and can’t simply leave students hanging until state lawmakers and the governor finalize their budget later this spring.

But Brown is simply off-base in his apparent belief that there’s some easy way to simply rethink UC’s operations, as if it were the Department of Motor Vehicles instead of the world’s greatest public university system.

There is no silver bullet in three-year degrees and online classes, and there’s only so much middle-management fat to cut, even in bureaucracy the size of Napolitano’s. Moreover, what about the hundreds of thousands of community college students who are being encouraged by Brown to set their sights on a UC degree via a transfer? Don’t they deserve the four-year degrees that they’re being tacitly promised?

It’s hard to believe that the governor can’t find some extra money for higher education in a $164 billion state budget. It is easy, however, to imagine him digging into an abstraction that he imagines will save money.

Tuesday’s debate is just another step in a long negotiating process, but it would be nice to see both sides show some sign of movement. Out there beyond the hearing rooms and legislative offices, a couple hundred thousand families are worrying and waiting.

For them, the UC debate isn’t some interesting exercise in philosophy and policymaking. Their future depends on it.