Posted: 11/23/2009 12:01:00 AM PST
STUDENTS ATTENDING the University of California next fall will be paying 32 percent more in fees than they are now. That's an increase of $2,514 on top of a $662 increase this year over last. No wonder students are protesting at UC campuses across the state.
As recently as 1993, UC student fees were just $1,624 a year, far less than at many public universities in other states. The low fees made higher education financially available to many people who otherwise would not have advanced their schooling.
Large subsidies to UC were an important part of California's commitment to expanding educational opportunities, which not only helped students, but enhanced the economic growth and quality of life in the state.
Even before the current recession and series of state budget crises, California's financing of higher education had been eroding. Today's weak economy, with its consequent reductions in state revenues, has placed a severe burden on the UC system. Regents had no choice but to substantially raise student fees.
UC has laid off 1,900 employees, imposed furloughs on faculty and staff, cut 3,800 positions and left vacant another 1,600. But even with these spending reductions, the university faces a bleak fiscal year with $1 billion less in state revenues.
However, even with the huge increases in fees, the cost of attending the University of California for many students is considerably
less than it is at similar private universities and colleges, where tuition is often at least three times higher.
Students from families with household incomes under $60,000 (near the state median) do not have to pay fees, allowing lower-income residents access to UC. But what about those from middle-income families who do not qualify for a fee waiver?
Stanford, which charges more than triple what UC students will pay in fees next year, waives tuition for students from households earning less than $100,000 a year. That means Stanford could be more affordable for many middle-income families than UC.
For the next few years, we do not see any way the state can make it possible for the UC system to lower fees. But every effort must be made to avoid more increases.
In the long run, California needs to make a more stable commitment toward higher eduction, perhaps by guaranteeing a given percentage subsidy of UC costs so that there are no more huge, unanticipated spikes in student fees.
For their part, UC leaders need to make greater efforts to hold down costs. Perhaps an independent audit of university finances would help find ways to prevent expenses from rising far faster than the rate of inflation.
Most important, the current severe economic downturn in California should not set a new ceiling for state spending on higher education. As the economy recovers, so should Sacramento's commitment to California's public colleges and universities.