Soapbox: Who will pay for the University of California?

McClatchy News Service

Here we go again. The regents of the University of California meet this week to discuss raising tuition costs by 5 percent a year for five years, after a three-year freeze. Under the proposal, entering California students in 2019 will be paying $15,560 just for tuition.

Gov. Jerry Brown is fiercely opposed to the proposal. Yet the truth is that the University of California is in a deep hole. If it is to continue to promise all Californians access to a world-class higher education, if it is to continue to be an engine of economic growth and cultural innovation for the state, someone needs to pay.

The state used to do this. Yet the amount of funding the UC receives from the state for each student has been cut in half in the past 14 years. It fell from $24,000 in 2000 to $10,000 in 2011 when Brown cut UC funding by 20 percent.

Thanks to Proposition 30, state funding per student is at $12,700. Yet only about 4.5 percent of the funding raised by Proposition 30 actually went to UC, and Brown insists that even that meager sum will expire in 2016.

As a consequence of state funding cuts, tuition at UC has risen exponentially over the past three decades. Tuition and fees cost $1,820 in 1990-91; a decade later it cost $3,964; and now undergraduates are paying $13,200. And as every parent knows, the price of tuition is just a fraction of the total cost of higher education. The UC estimates that the total cost of its education in 2013-14 is more than $33,000.

Needless to say, the median family income of Californians has not kept up with the rising cost of higher education. In 1990, it was $35,789; by 2000, it was $47,493; and now it is $59,645. Whereas tuition rates have increased by 625 percent, median family income has not even doubled.

Students and families have been forced to go into debt to keep the Californian dream alive. Two decades ago, the vast majority of Californian students did not have to take out loans; now they are expected to graduate with debts of more than $20,000. At one time, California invested in the higher education of the next generation. Now we expect them to debt-finance their future.

The really sad thing is that both UC President Janet Napolitano and Brown know that tuition hikes cannot make good the loss of state funding.

Faced with presiding over the ruin of the world’s best public university, UC’s administrators are up a creek looking for a paddle. While they have ensured they are very well paid, they have energetically cut costs elsewhere and sought new sources of revenue. Yet almost all the steps they have taken to increase revenue make it harder for ordinary families to maintain the Californian dream.

UC has increased the number of nonresident students who pay an additional $23,000 to 20 percent of its entering class this year. These are disproportionately concentrated on the flagship campuses of UCLA and Berkeley, where it is becoming harder for Californians to gain admission. Moreover, as with private fundraising, where UCLA and Berkeley are also leading the effort, the campuses get to keep the additional revenue from nonresident tuition for themselves. We are witnessing the development of a dual-track UC system, with Berkeley and UCLA becoming more and more like private colleges for the elite.

Faced with a bill of $33,000 for attending a UC, many students choose to go out of state to college. Ironically, private universities, with generous scholarship and financial-aid packages that Berkeley or UCLA could never replicate, offer many California students a similar or lower price than UC.

The state that used to invest in a university system to nurture the talent of its future generation is now letting it either atrophy or become the finishing school of nonresidents while the children of Californian taxpayers head to college out of state. This is a waste of everybody’s resources.

Higher tuition is part of the problem, not the solution. Rather than saddling our children with mountains of debt, driving them out of the state or placing any higher education beyond their budget, it is time California’s ordinary, taxpaying families get a better deal.

If the UC is to continue to provide Californians access to a world-class education and bring prosperity to the state by helping make it a center of global innovation, we have to reinvest in it.

Does Brown want to be remembered as the man who dismantled what his father built: the best public university system in the world? Do we, the citizens of California, want to be part of the first generation since World War II not to provide public higher education for our children?

And the really silly thing is it would not even cost that much. To get tuition back down and state funding per student back up to their levels in 2000-01 would cost the median individual taxpayer in California $50 a year. That is a small investment in the future of California.

James Vernon is a professor of history at UC Berkeley and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association.