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Why privatizing the University of California won't work

UC has been a driver of the state economy and an engine of socioeconomic advancement. Raising fees to private-university levels would undermine its mission of equal opportunity.

December 10, 2009|Michael Hiltzik

But it also faces a unique challenge, given its size and the needs of the state. UC doesn't have the same options as many other state systems, observes James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, which he helped shepherd through its transition from full state support. Michigan's shrinking population of young persons allowed the university to ramp up its out-of-state population paying full freight (now more than 35% of undergraduates) while insulating state residents from rising tuition and fees.

Systemwide, out-of-state residents today account for only 7.6% of UC undergraduates. It's doubtful whether raising that percentage much more is politically tenable, given the overwhelming in-state demand for slots. Some experts also question whether UC really has enough appeal to attract a large cadre of nonresidents at private-university tuition rates, especially as seats in the most popular classes become scarcer. Facilities and other amenities would have to be upgraded, cutting into the profit margin from out-of-staters.

Nor will it be easy to supplement state funds from private sources, one of Yudof's goals. Most private contributions to universities, says Jane Wellman, director of the Delta Project, a Washington think tank on higher-education issues, target specific programs, not the general educational functions that are most affected by cutbacks in Sacramento. "Privatization means raising tuition," Wellman says. "There is no other major source of revenue."

By that measure, UC is already partially privatized, argues former Regent William T. Bagley, a vigorous champion of the university's public mission. He notes that the brunt of the change has been shouldered by "the middle class, those making $80,000 a year and higher" -- who typically aren't eligible for the most generous aid grants. "UC tuition is the most progressive income tax there is."

Former Regent Ward Connerly, a paragon of idiosyncratic thinking (to say the least), argues that the financial crisis gives the state a chance to reexamine the value of a UC education. "Let elite UC campuses like Berkeley and UCLA charge market rates," he says. "Students who go there would be high achievers who could afford it. Others would go to the other campuses or CSU or community college for two years. We've created the impression that you have to go to the UC system to be successful."

Yet would the state really gain from knocking UC off its pinnacle? Part of its role is to provide a gilt-edged education to all qualified Californians, blind to their financial need. "UC can survive as an institution by increasing its tuition," comments Wellman. "Can it survive and serve its public mission? I'm not sure about that."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com, read earlier columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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