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A fleeting fee freeze?

January 02, 2006

LAST WEEK'S ANNOUNCEMENT that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will spare the state's college students their expected 2006 fee increase was hailed as a surprise gift from a governor facing reelection. In reality, it's akin to pulling a single punch on students pummeled by three years of steep college fee hikes.

Students and their families should savor the newly frozen fees, because in all likelihood the freeze won't last. In 2002, just before the Board of Regents raised fees for the first time in eight years, University of California systemwide fees were about $3,400. Since then, the once-taboo idea of raising fees has become commonplace, and it probably will stay that way. Currently, UC fees stand at about $6,100, not including individual campus fees, books and room and board, which can push the total cost of attending a UC campus to close to $20,000 a year.

In 2004, the UC and California State University systems agreed to a compact with Schwarzenegger that built in annual student fee hikes in exchange for predictable funding increases. That's why in November, when the state's budget outlook was still fuzzy, the UC regents voted to raise fees for undergraduates by $492, and the Cal State trustees in October voted to increase fees by $204. Schwarzenegger's budget, due Jan. 10, would "buy out" those planned fee increases.

The problem is, the compact allows annual fee increases of 10% at both university systems until 2011. A projected $5.2-billion surplus at the end of this fiscal year allowed Schwarzenegger to cancel the 2006 fee increase. But all indications are that the surplus will be short-lived.

If the budget tanks again, Sacramento could point to this year's pass for UC and Cal State and force the systems to raise fees even higher than the allowed 10%. Steve D. Boilard of the state legislative analyst's office told The Times last week that the 2004 compact carried the implicit agreement that students, rather than the state, should bear more of the cost of a UC or Cal State education.

Forty years ago, the idea of charging any tuition at all was so galling to then-UC President Clark Kerr that he briefly froze admissions when Gov. Ronald Reagan first proposed student fees, along with cutting the university's budget. Now a governor creates a buzz and draws praise for not raising fees. How things have changed.

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