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Fees or tuition, it's too much

Editorial

Both the UC and Cal State systems want to increase fees or tuition. The increases are threatening to price middle-class families out of California colleges.

November 10, 2010

Congratulations to the students of California State University. Finally, the $4,000-plus they pay to attend will be called "tuition" — which is what it actually is, although for years California maintained the polite fiction that students at UC and CSU were just paying "fees," as though this was pin money to cover the cost of a campus dance.


FOR THE RECORD:
Dudamel: A Nov. 13 editorial said that tickets to Gustavo Dudamel's first concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic "sold out in record time." The tickets were dispensed in record time, but the concert was free. —

But whatever it's called, it's been rising too fast for struggling families in a bad economy. In 2008, there were gasps as Cal State fees were raised to $3,048 a year. Now the $4,200 yearly tuition is expected to rise by 5% next semester and an additional 10% the following academic year, climbing close to $5,000 — more than three times what it was a decade ago.

Meanwhile, UC President Mark Yudof on Monday released a "letter to California" calling for an 8% increase in fees — which also look and feel a lot like tuition — to more than $11,000. This, after a wallet-emptying 32% increase last year. UC campuses also have some of the highest room-and-board prices of any colleges, public or private, in the nation, which are charged in addition to fees. UC Berkeley, for example, is the second-highest, according to a recent report by the College Board.

The increases would be more understandable if the two university systems were as poorly funded this year as almost every other state program, including K-12 schools. But after stinging cuts last year, both systems were the recipients of largesse in the most recent budget: $260 million for Cal State and about $265 million for UC. In addition, both received one-time federal stimulus funds. Neither system was made financially whole, but nothing is whole about state services in the current economic climate.

Both university systems plan to add financial aid for more students, which is of little help to struggling middle-class families. They're the ones who'll pay for the increased financial aid through the fee and tuition increases. UC fees have more than doubled in less than a decade. And next year, the universities cannot expect more stimulus money, so what will happen to the price of public higher education then? Costs are rising so fast that California families cannot even plan for their children's education.

Some price increases might be unavoidable, but both systems should look for further budget-paring possibilities as well. Yudof already has done the right thing by planning to centralize and streamline UC's administrative operations, but there are smaller items the universities could consider. Does UC, for example, need to continue its policy of providing homes for high-level executives? Yudof's rented home alone costs $11,500 a month. Although each cut would be insignificant, a series of smaller trims could partly offset budget deficits. It's also appropriate for top managers to show that they're willing to chip in for the good of students and the university systems.

Cal State's fee — sorry, tuition — increases warrant special concern. Cal State is the workhorse of the two systems, created to supply the vast majority of bachelor's degrees for the state at a cost that almost any student could afford. Yet it's where the increases have been steepest.

As painful as it is, the universities should consider reducing enrollment for a couple of years, pushing more students to start their college careers in the less-expensive community college system. And the Legislature should finally get up the nerve to impose significant fee increases — with waivers for those who cannot afford the added cost — at the community colleges, the one place in the state's higher-education system where fees are too low, by far the lowest in the nation. Middle-class families can easily afford an increase, which would fund more classes as well as fee waivers for low-income students. At a time when every penny counts, this would provide higher education for the most students at the lowest cost.

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