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Editorial

UC on the brink

Another increase in 'fees' hits students hard, but the system itself may now be at risk.

November 21, 2009

Sorry to say, the University of California Board of Regents took the easiest route possible out of its crushing financial dilemma Thursday by placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of students. We can't help wondering whether the regents understand that the nearly one-third increase in undergraduate tuition -- it's time to dispense with the euphemism of "fees" for UC students -- could prove the tipping point for the nation's greatest public university system, including its star campus, UC Berkeley, the top-ranked public university in the world.

UC is still cheap, relatively speaking, though its tuition is higher than average for public colleges. Even tuition of more than $10,000, which will start next year at UC, compares well with the $26,300 average at private universities and colleges. But that's more than twice what it was a decade ago, meaning it grew at four times the rate of inflation. And room and board at UC costs another $14,000 or so, about the same as at private schools.

UC has long drawn the best and brightest from all the socioeconomic strata in California, especially among the middle class, whose incomes were too high for financial aid at private universities. But private schools have pumped up their merit-based scholarships in recent years to attract top students. Once those awards are figured in, there's not much difference between UC and a private college except that UC also has been reducing class offerings to the point where students are finding it hard to get into courses they need. And as Times staff writer Larry Gordon reported, some private colleges already are using the cutbacks to recruit students away from the state's public universities.

A 32% higher price for bigger classes and less chance of a seat in desired courses won't sound like a bargain to many potential students. This isn't just a matter of easing up on families, many of whom face their own financial crises these days. UC's ability to draw top academic talent is at stake, and with that, its prestige. We all know that once prices are raised, they seldom reverse course, but the regents should not see this increase as a permanent UC entitlement. The board should consider this an emergency increase, to be lifted as soon as possible.

recruit studentsSome kind of fee increase was inevitable. The state's budget ax has fallen heavily on UC, and families had to expect to share some of the pain. But there were ways to soften the blow, including by greatly expanding plans to recruit and enroll more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition, and brokering a deal with Sacramento to temporarily reduce overall enrollment without losing funding. Such measures would be easy to calibrate up or down as future needs demand, and they are more likely to be reversed in better times than the newly approved tuition increase.

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