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UC fee hikes: a two-edged sword

Times are tough, and students must pay more; but UC runs the risk of pricing out the middle class.

September 19, 2009

Even in the best of times, few California households can easily afford a 44% increase in their children's college tuition within two years. The proposal to raise University of California undergraduate fees to about $10,300 a year by the fall of 2010 -- including a midyear fee hike in January -- would come as a financial shock to many families and a real hardship for some.

Yet there is no way to avoid at least some tuition increase. The university has made substantial cuts, including work furloughs and layoffs. Maintaining UC's reputation as a top destination for undergraduates, as well as a graduate research and publishing institution, is a good investment for its students and California.

UC attracts brainpower, research dollars and investment capital. It's a big part of why we have Silicon Valley as well as San Diego's biotech industry and a major reason why many high-achieving California students stay here for college. A reduction in academic programs or a loss of respected faculty would cost students more than the admittedly jaw-dropping fee increase proposed by UC President Mark G. Yudof.

That said, UC runs an equal risk of losing prestige if it does not take steps to soften the blow. Yudof has pledged extra financial assistance for needy students, but that excludes much of the middle class, and he concedes that applications from this group already have fallen. At the same time, private colleges and universities are providing more financial aid and merit awards to the brightest middle-class students, substantially narrowing the price gap between themselves and UC while offering the perquisites of private education. UC cannot hold on to its sparkling reputation if these students abandon the public university system.

But then, UC is sadly less and less the public university envisioned by its founders more than 100 years ago and by the framers of the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. In 1990, the state paid more than 75% of the cost of educating each UC student; by 2007, that had fallen to 56%, and under the proposed fee hikes, the number would drop again substantially.

Before the Board of Regents approves new fees, it should closely examine Yudof's desire to end work furloughs after this academic year. We understand that most UC faculty work for modest salaries and can ill afford pay cuts, but we also are not convinced that they would leave in droves if furloughs of a few days a year were extended into 2010-11. The university also could increase the number of out-of-state undergraduates who pay full price, charge a premium to students who stay past four years (unless they were denied seats in needed classes), guarantee transfer spaces to promising students who attend community college for at least two years, and pledge to lower fees when state funding improves. Everybody has to chip in to preserve UC as the state treasure it is now.

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