Since he entered UCLA in 2006, Carlos Juarez has interrupted his studies at the Westwood campus four times in response to increasing fees.
At Cal State Fullerton, the rising cost of her education has caused Michelle Santizo to reduce her status to part time, and the health science major will leave the school next semester to complete her coursework at a less-costly community college.
The two students have come of age at a time of unprecedented change at California's public universities, when students and their families are being asked to pay a greater share of education costs because of declining state funding.
That burden is growing. University of California regents last week approved raising basic undergraduate fees to $11,124 next year, not including campus charges and room and board.
Cal State University trustees recently voted to boost undergraduate fees 15% by next fall, to $4,884, not including campus fees and other charges. And both university systems are now calling the charges "tuition," in recognition that the student costs associated with the state's once-promised "tuition-free education" are no longer incidental.
As tuition has soared in recent years, many are concerned about the repercussions, especially whether the rapidly increasing costs are forcing students to drop out, permanently or for a while.
A newly released analysis by UC found no correlation, at least so far. The review by UC researchers showed dropout rates to be fairly stable over the last decade for students at all income levels, despite higher charges.
On average, 2% to 3% of UC students interrupted their studies between terms, while more than 5% typically left school after the spring term and did not return for fall. The review found that academic preparedness was the best predictor of who would drop out. But the period studied did not include the steep tuition hikes from this year, officials said, nor did it determine why students left.
The review was prompted after officials heard anecdotal accounts of students dropping out because of higher fees, said Kate Jeffery, UC's director of student financial support. The university will continue to track the effect of the increases, especially for middle-income students who may not qualify for financial aid. The regents last week also approved a one-year reprieve from the increase for qualified students with family incomes up to $120,000.
Jeffery said officials recognize that there is a "tipping point" that will affect student access. "It does have a very definite impact on what fee increases are proposed and adopted," she said.
At Cal State, officials have found no indication so far that higher costs have caused growing numbers of students to drop out, said Claudia Keith, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs.
Officials at UC and Cal State said increased financial aid has mitigated the effect of the fee hikes.
But even for lower- and middle-income students who qualify for financial aid, education costs combined with other living expenses can represent a sizable chunk of the family income, said Adrian Griffin, assistant director of research and policy development at the California Postsecondary Education Commission. The group is scheduled to release a report on affordability this week.
"It could be that fee increases and living costs are driving marginal students out of Cal State just as a few years ago, rapid fee increases priced those students out of UC," Griffin said.
Hans Johnson, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, said tuition increases could push some students to graduate more quickly or result in increased enrollment at private colleges. There has been little research charting the effects of higher fees, and Johnson is seeking a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study the issue.
"California needs more college graduates, and we need to find ways to make the pathway more successful," he said.
But students like Juarez and Santizo have already had to alter their paths.
Juarez, 22, is an illegal immigrant and doesn't qualify for financial aid. His financial assumptions based on his freshman-year costs have been outstripped by basic undergraduate tuition and average campus-based fees that have risen nearly 65% over the five-year period of his enrollment.
In his second year at UCLA, Juarez dropped out for two quarters. He skipped a term last year and is not enrolled this term. He plans to take extension courses in the winter and hopes to re-enroll full time in the spring. It is not what he envisioned as a youngster growing up in South Gate, even though he is one of the first in his family to attend college.
"It's like taking the whole summer off," Juarez said of his forced breaks. "You have to rehabituate yourself to reading, to learning, getting yourself back into study habits, waking yourself up when you have morning classes."