Highly esteemed worldwide, the University of California is among the state's most valuable assets, but it is in danger of being sharply devalued as its budget undergoes continual cuts and uncertainty.
UC President Mark Yudof hopes to bring some stability to the university by using whatever budget he is granted this year as the starting point for a five-year deal with state government, with assured funding levels for the next several years. If this sounds familiar — and unlikely to happen — you're probably thinking back to 2004 and the famous "compact" between UC and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. After a budget that required steep fee increases for UC students, Schwarzenegger pledged reliable increases over the coming years so that families could plan ahead. The compact never made UC whole, and it fell apart in 2008.
Yudof already is outlining possible ways to raise revenue and reduce expenses in bad budget years. We agree with many of these, as well as his overall priority: maintaining UC's status as an academic and research star. Some changes can be reversed quickly when times improve, but a damaged reputation would linger for many years.
An 8% tuition increase already has been approved for the fall; an additional midyear increase is possible. As part of these hikes, though, UC should revamp its financial aid system to help middle-class families who are beginning to find that private colleges, many of which offer merit scholarships, might be a better deal. Up to now, UC has given a free ride to families earning less than $80,000 a year. But many families with such incomes could afford to pay a little bit toward their children's education or take out a modest loan. Providing smaller aid packages to a larger range of students would still allow lower-income families to attend while avoiding pricing out the middle class.