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Little interest seen in plan to cut college fees

With funding for higher education stabilized under Schwarzenegger, Angelides' call for a rollback doesn't appear to stir up most voters.

October 23, 2006|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

The 100 or so students gathered inside UCLA's Kerckhoff Hall one recent day clapped and cheered when state Treasurer Phil Angelides repeated his frequent campaign promise to cut student fees at California's public colleges and universities.

"Go, Phil!" a young man shouted from the back, as others munched on free pizza provided by the Bruin Democrats, a student group.

But several political analysts said it was not clear that Angelides' proposal to cut fees, a key element of his stump speech, has resonated much with the wider public in his campaign to unseat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The analysts add that a simple fact makes Angelides' plan a tough sell: Despite several years of sharp increases early in the decade, fees were frozen for the current school year for University of California and California State University students. And the charges for community college students are actually scheduled to drop -- from $26 to $20 per unit -- in January.

"Unless they've got kids in college, I just don't think most people are paying much attention to student fees," UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain said. "It may not be the most effective issue right now."

In 2001 and 2002, the state's economic crisis prompted funding cuts and dramatic fee hikes -- totaling more than 40% -- for the UC and Cal State systems.

After Schwarzenegger's first year in office, 2003, there was more of the same. Fees for California resident undergraduates rose a further 14% for the 2004-05 school year, to $4,984 for UC students and $2,046 for those at Cal State. Funding for such areas as research, libraries, administration and student services was slashed.

In a controversial move, the governor that year also asked the two university systems to turn away academically qualified students, requesting that they cut freshman enrollment by 10% for fall 2004 while guaranteeing those turned away the right to transfer after two years at a community college.

The action was reversed when the budget outlook improved that summer, but by then it was too late for many students to switch gears and enroll at their first-choice schools.

Yet Schwarzenegger also stabilized funding for UC and Cal State, entering into a multiyear agreement with the universities' leaders in 2004 that, after initial cuts, provided a predictable stream of money for enrollment growth and higher costs. The deal allowed student fees to rise but capped the annual increases at 10%. And the fees, after another 8% hike for undergraduates for the 2005-06 school year, were frozen this year.

Angelides wants to scale back fees to what they were when Schwarzenegger took office.

But this year, overall state general fund spending on higher education increased 9.4%, to $11.3 billion. And higher education advocates have applauded the governor's recent signing of a bill to "equalize" the funding formula for community colleges, rectifying long-standing disparities in the amount of money the state provides various colleges.

Despite criticism from Democratic legislators, UC and Cal State leaders said the "compact" they reached with the governor was necessary to stop the financial hemorrhaging caused by years of reductions and to guarantee the schools' long-term stability.

Angelides, who was an early, vocal opponent of the governor's 2004 cuts to the universities, has made the higher education issue a central theme of his campaign and his effort to appeal to middle-income voters.

In addition to promising to roll back the student fee hikes made under Schwarzenegger -- he rarely mentions the steeper increases that occurred in the final two years under the governor's Democratic predecessor, Gov. Gray Davis -- Angelides has scoffed at a recent comment by Schwarzenegger that UC and Cal State fees were "too low compared to the rest of the country."

The Democrat also says he would raise the income ceilings on Cal Grant awards, the state's main financial aid program for needy and middle-income students, and double the number of public school counselors to help students prepare for college. And he says he would work with higher education leaders to plan for a combined enrollment increase of 20,000 students in the UC and Cal State systems, although campaign officials said there was no specified time frame for that expansion.

Angelides has said he would pay for the programs with higher taxes on wealthy Californians, through state government "efficiencies" and by closing corporate tax loopholes.

"I'm going to be a governor who is always on the side of students," he said at the Oct. 10 UCLA rally.

Not surprisingly, the campaign pitch resonated with students, even those who said they weren't yet sure how they would vote.

"Angelides definitely has the best position on that," said freshman Sarah Dobjensky as other students nodded.

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