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California universities consider adopting the T-word: tuition

Since 1960's master plan for public higher education, which had the goal of tuition-free schooling for all, the word has been eschewed in favor of "fees." But recent realities argue for a change.

June 14, 2010|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

For 50 years, they've avoided it. But California's public universities are now inching closer to using the word they've long viewed as taboo: tuition.

Unlike schools in every other state, California's public campuses in effect have banned official use of the word and what it means — that students pay at least a hefty share, if not most, of their education costs.

The state's renowned master plan for higher education, which in 1960 established separate roles for the University of California, California State University and the community colleges, also declared that the public institutions "shall be tuition free to all residents." Since then, even as the amount students pay for their education has soared, campuses here have stubbornly insisted on using the word "fees" for the instructional charges that other states call tuition.

Now, however, a movement is underway to drop what many education experts consider an outdated, even dishonest term. It's high time, they say, to adopt the "T-word" in registration bills and campus discussions.

For example, with UC's basic undergraduate educational cost now topping $10,000 a year, three times more than a decade ago, "tuition" is the accurate term, they say. They also note that in 2009, California's confusing terminology nearly kept the state's veterans from receiving certain federal education benefits and financial aid.

"Calling it tuition is necessary because that's what it is. It's just truth in advertising really," said UC student regent Jesse Bernal, who is co-chairman of a systemwide study group that recently recommended the 10-campus university start using the term. UC's Commission on the Future, to which Bernal's advisory panel belongs, was to meet Monday to discuss the issue and other reforms designed to chart UC's course through the current budget crunch and beyond.

The wording change, Bernal added, "also signifies that we are steering away from the master plan. This is what the state is forcing us to do. As an institution, we now have tuition."

The panel's proposal states that the word "fees" incorrectly implies "specialized or optional services," while "tuition" more accurately describes the way the money is actually used: to support academic programs, student services, student financial aid and administrative services.

But owning up to that reality might be difficult, several experts predicted. And approval by the UC regents, the Cal State Board of Trustees and the Legislature would be required.

"It would have a deep, deep symbolism. I think it would be a philosophical change of how we view things," said Daniel Alvarez, chief consultant to the state Senate's Education Committee.

Currently — and confusingly, many say — California's public universities and colleges use "tuition" only for the hefty surcharges that out-of-state students pay to attend schools here.

Otherwise, the state is unique in its avoidance of the term, said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.

He and other experts said the issue was not merely symbolic, noting that last year, it had briefly threatened to keep military veterans attending private colleges in California from receiving promised benefits under the new GI Bill.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had pegged the assistance amounts in the bill to the highest undergraduate tuition charged by public colleges in each state. But since California public institutions did not charge "tuition," the level was set at zero for the state. It took several months of protests and bureaucratic wrangling to straighten out the mess and restore the aid.

That difficulty triggered informal conversations about finally shifting from "fees" to "tuition" on the 23 campuses of the Cal State system, said spokeswoman Claudia Keith. If UC makes such a change, Cal State will probably follow suit, she said.

UC President Mark G. Yudof said he had to get used to California's "fee" terminology when he arrived in 2008 after holding top jobs at state universities in Texas and Minnesota. Now, although he anticipates some disagreement among the university's regents, he would not oppose the proposed shift, he said. "I always lean toward honesty," Yudof said.

But resistance remains.

Victor Sanchez, president of the UC Student Assn., wants to stick with "fees" for strategic reasons. "It would leave some hope of returning to some principles of the master plan," said Sanchez, who is finishing his bachelor's degree at UC Santa Cruz.

In the past, the "tuition" taboo was so strong that politicians would correct themselves if they used the term and university officials would scold newspaper reporters who wrote it. Now, Assemblyman Marty Block, a San Diego-area Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said in a recent e-mail that he would support the proposal. "It more accurately reflects where the money is going and its purpose of teaching students at our colleges and universities," he wrote.

Daniel Simmons, a UC Davis law professor and vice-chairman of UC's systemwide Faculty Senate, said a switch would undoubtedly ease confusion for students and parents when they see their university bills. Most faculty members also support the change, he said.

Still, Simmons said, for most students, the semantic change is not as important as the steadily rising cost of their education. "That's the real issue," he said. "It doesn't matter a lot if you call it tuition or not."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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