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Cal State to call student fees the T-word

Tuition is a more honest, accurate description of the fees charged for educational costs, officials say. But the move marks a philosophical shift from the state ideal of offering a tuition-free public college education.

November 08, 2010|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times

Ending a decades-long tradition, the California State University plans to start using the word "tuition" instead of "fees" to refer to the educational costs it charges to students.

The move marks a fundamental philosophical shift in the ideal of offering Californians a tuition-free public college education, a principle enshrined in the state's master plan for higher education adopted 50 years ago.

California students have long paid fees for specialized or optional services such as health, housing and recreation. But in recent years, as the state has been hit by recessions, its public colleges have increasingly charged students hefty fees to help cover their educational costs as well.

Tuition is a more accurate and honest description of the charges, Cal State officials said. It is also in line with the label most widely used by colleges and universities across the country.

"It's a case of truth in advertising and saying, 'Let's be honest with ourselves and honest with everyone else,' " said Robert Turnage, the university's assistant vice chancellor for budget.

Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed is expected to issue an executive order to implement the change by the end of the year and will also specify which campus charges will continue to be called fees, officials said. Cal State trustees will be briefed on the change at a board meeting that starts Tuesday. Informally, the university will begin using the new term immediately.

University of California regents are expected to consider a similar wording change at their meeting in San Francisco next week, UC spokesman Peter King said.

At the meetings, both boards also are expected to approve increases in those charges. Cal State leaders have proposed a two-step undergraduate fee hike of 5% for the rest of this school year and an additional 10% for next year. UC leaders will consider an undergraduate increase of 8% for next school year.

Basic fees for undergraduates now top $10,000 annually at UC and $4,200 at Cal State.

Of the likely terminology change, Cal State and UC officials noted that in 2009, the state's use of the word "fee" had threatened federal financial aid assistance to veterans, which is based on the amount of "tuition" charged to resident students. The universities had to fight to restore the aid.

Christopher Chavez, president of the Cal State Student Assn., called the shift "unfortunate," but said it will have little practical effect on students.

"It's sad that we're moving away from the ideal, but students are going to be paying the same, no matter what it's called," said Chavez, who attends Cal State Long Beach.

The decision by the state's public universities is being driven by a grim reality, said Kevin Woolfork, budget policy coordinator for the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

For the current fiscal year, residential student fees will generate $4 billion for Cal State and UC on top of $6 billion in state general funds, he said. About 600,000 students are enrolled in the 23-campus Cal State and 10-campus UC systems.

"It used to be that for every dollar of student fee revenue the universities got about $12 or $13 in general funds, but now it's about $1.33 in general funds for every dollar of student fees," Woolfork said. "There's really been no move to increase taxes to buy out student fees and they now make up such a large share of operating costs that it would be hard to roll that back."

The move toward tuition disturbs many, though.

"It's being billed as a harmless shift in terminology that has no significance, except that it does," said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Assn. and a history professor at Cal State L.A. "It's an erosion of support of the backbone of higher education that makes our state so unique."

A report in July by a legislative joint committee on the master plan reaffirmed its basic tenets of universal access, affordability and high quality. Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, the committee's co-chairman, said the governor, legislators and the public must agree on a framework of shared costs and said it was not a good idea to change the terms used.

"It unfortunately will be seen as walking away from the commitment of the state to affordable public education for all eligible students in California and this is not a time we want to walk away from that," said Ruskin (D- Redwood City). "The governor and Legislature now must recommit themselves to that policy and find a way to fund it."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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