UCLA would have to significantly raise, perhaps more than double, the cost of its undergraduate program to remain a first-rate university, Chancellor Albert Carnesale said Thursday.
Although the chancellor said such a fee hike is years away from gaining support, his call for an increase, from the current $6,600, underscored how far the UC system has departed from one of its founding tenets as a tuition-free university.
In the face of dwindling state funding, Carnesale said UCLA "will not be able to match the elite private universities" in quality under its current fee structure for California residents. He said budget cuts have made it increasingly difficult for UCLA to recruit and keep top faculty and graduate students.
Speaking to Town Hall, a downtown Los Angeles civic group, Carnesale pledged to increase financial aid if any fee increases were enacted to ensure that UCLA remains open to low-income students.
The University of California Board of Regents, the Legislature and the governor must approve such a fee increase, and securing their support would not happen quickly, Carnesale said.
"It will be years, not months," he said.
All seven UC undergraduate programs charge roughly the same fees. Carnesale said that it might be appropriate for some campuses, including the more selective UCLA and UC Berkeley, to charge more.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who is also a UC regent, said he doubted that a large fee increase, even one accompanied by greater financial aid, would pass the Legislature.
Noting that UC fees have risen sharply over the last three years, Nunez said, "We've done so much damage to ... middle-class and working-class families, I think even my Republican colleagues might say enough is enough."
Carnesale said it was important to raise the issue and open it for study now because budget cuts threaten UCLA's long-term prospects of remaining a top research university.
"Right now we're fine. Tomorrow we'll be fine. But we can see the leading edge, and we had better be proactive to ensure our excellence in the future," he said.
In an interview after his address, Carnesale said he has not commissioned a study to set new fees, but "my guess is that it would be between $15,000 and $20,000" a year.
Such a sharp increase would strike a blow to a defining trait of UCLA and the UC system as a whole: tuition costs that are lower than those charged by other top state universities.
Also, it would challenge the university's ability to sustain its unmatched percentage of low-income students among top universities, both public and private.
In a nationwide study released this year of low-income enrollments at 50 universities, UCLA ranked first in the percentage of undergraduate students who receive Pell grants, a need-based federal grant for low-income students. UC campuses held the top seven places in the study.
At UCLA, more than 35% of undergraduates received Pell grants, nearly three times the proportion of students with such grants at the University of Michigan, a school typically cited by some university educators as a model for the higher fees that UCLA might adopt.
Carnesale said UCLA's enrollment of low-income students was a source of pride and insisted that a fee increase would not threaten UCLA's No. 1 ranking in that area. The additional money from higher fees, he said, would pay for more scholarship money for low-income students.
"Unlike the rest of the country, California is serving everybody in its higher education system," he said.
The University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and other elite public schools enroll a smaller percentage of low-income students because they admit large numbers of out-of-state students who tend to be more affluent, Carnesale said. Carnesale said he favored continuing to limit out-of-state enrollment at UCLA, which draws 90% of its students from California.
Higher education experts warn, however, that even with abundant financial aid, high tuition rates can discourage low-income students from considering a school.
"If UCLA increases fees by any large amount, you have to assume it will have an impact on access, especially for poorer students," said Donald E. Heller, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the effects of higher education costs.
"We know from research students respond more to a sticker price," Heller said. "A lot of students, particularly poor students, don't know about financial aid. All they know is that they see in the newspaper fees have doubled."
Nunez said that higher fees would also hurt middle-income students who might not qualify for large amounts of financial aid.
"It's the group in the middle that oftentimes is at a disadvantage," he said. "Poor families can continue to receive financial aid, and the wealthy can afford the increase in tuition."