Editorials

Playing hardball with UCs puts students in middle

University of California President Janet Napolitano is recommending tuition increases in each of the next five years as a way to keep the public university system healthy despite what she says is the state’s failure to adequately invest in higher education.
University of California President Janet Napolitano is recommending tuition increases in each of the next five years as a way to keep the public university system healthy despite what she says is the state’s failure to adequately invest in higher education. The Associated Press

When Janet Napolitano took office as president of the University of California last autumn, the former governor of Arizona made it clear she would play hardball for the UCs, if need be.

Last week, after waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown to be safely reelected, Napolitano came out swinging: If the state doesn’t give the UCs more money, she says, she wants to start automatically raising tuition by as much as 5 percent annually.

It’s a gutsy move. But she shouldn’t use students and their families as cannon fodder to launch the battle. Nor should Brown renege on his Proposition 30 promises about funding higher education as a way to force the UCs to cut costs and innovate.

Last year, Brown offered what he called a “reality sandwich,” giving the university more money but not all it sought. He’s doing the same this time.

The University of California may be the Golden State’s greatest public institution. It offers a pathway for talented people of modest means to vastly improve their circumstances, fosters innovation and in many ways drives the economy.

Although demands on it have grown ever more complex, its state support has been ebbing for decades. In the short term, tuition should stay where it is. Brown and the Legislature should increase the state’s investment.

But the university system needs a whole new ballgame. The governor said last year that chancellors at individual campuses need to find ways to save money. When salaries for many administrators – not faculty – exceed $200,000, priorities are seriously askew.

At least part of any tuition increase would be used to bail out UC’s failed pension gamble. For two decades ending in 2010, UC regents required no employee contribution into the UC pension fund.

Now, the UC requires employees to pay either 7 percent or 8 percent toward their retirement. The university pays $1.3 billion a year for pensions, a third of which is to deal with the pension liability of its own creation.

UC must make good on its promise to pay employees’ retirement costs. But parents, students and taxpayers should not be on the hook for the regents’ uneducated guess that pension funds would magically increase in perpetuity.

When the recession hit, campuses trimmed some staff and did some streamlining. The system also doubled tuition and admitted many more out-of-state students, to the dismay of many Californians whose children qualified for admission, but received rejection letters.

At popular campuses such as UCLA and Berkeley, nearly a third of enrollment is now coming from outside California. And though 55 percent of UC undergraduates still get a free ride thanks to scholarships and financial aid programs, the ones who don’t qualify for help pay dearly.

A year at a UC now averages more than $12,000 without aid, and that’s just tuition. With room, board and books, the cost can top $30,000 a year.

That’s still a reasonably good deal, although private colleges increasingly find ways to match the cost of a University of California education, and many all but guarantee graduation within four years.

Proposition 30, the tax hike approved two years ago, was supposed to help. But after Brown stumped through the 10-campus system, exhorting students and parents to pass it, the initiative only yielded “an eyedrop” of money for the UCs, Napolitano says.

Just 5 percent of the more than $13 billion raised so far has gone to UC. Brown nixed extra legislative appropriations that might have made up some of the difference.

Why? Partly because he’s just parsimonious. Partly because he believes, rightly, that the UCs have too many overpaid administrators on the payroll.

He also believes that the University of California needs to get radically creative about sustaining its future. Professors should teach more, he has said. The university should do more with online education and find better ways to facilitate community college transfers and speed up degree completion.

Several organizations, from the Little Hoover Commission to the Public Policy Institute of California, have ideas for a new state master plan for higher education. We’re overdue for that discussion.

In the short term, the UC has to educate a 21st-century workforce, conduct research, operate hospitals and libraries and meet payroll and pension obligations.

California’s public universities shouldn’t have to resort to brinkmanship to get the governor’s attention. Hardball is fun, but the future of higher education isn’t a game.

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