Nov. 26 2014 08:57 AM

Increasing cost to students imperils the underpinnings of California’s system of higher education

Janet Napolitano
The California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960 is an amazing thing—a monumental thing that we doubt would ever get accomplished these days. It organized the state’s system of public universities and colleges into a coherent, tiered system that would serve all types of students without duplication of efforts: 

Community colleges would take anyone who wanted a post-secondary education, offer two-year associate’s degrees and provide a path—a second chance of sorts—to a university; the California State University (then known as “College”) would offer four-year bachelor’s and master’s degrees; and the University of California would offer the most prestigious education to the state’s top students and serve as the state’s major research institution.

And the truly incredible thing was that the state would make this system of higher education accessible and affordable to anyone who was willing to do the work and could benefit from it. That was brilliant. It meant that the state wouldn’t let socioeconomic status be the reason that society didn’t benefit down the road from someone’s brain and drive to succeed. No one would fall through the cracks.

But that concept is falling apart. In recent years, it’s gotten harder and harder to get into a university and more and more expensive for those who do. Last week, for example, the University of California’s Board of Regents approved a plan devised by UC President Janet Napolitano to raise tuition by 5 percent in each of the next five years, amounting roughly to a cumulative 27-percent increase by 2019. In raw numbers, tuition for California residents would rise from $12,192, to $15,564 in that time. Of course, that’s not the whole cost—add thousands of dollars more for books, fees, room and board, etc. State and federal grants pay for low-income students; it’s 
the middle class that’s getting squeezed.

Students protesting up and down the state rightly direct their anger at Napolitano and the regents. The UC has increased pay dramatically for some top administrators while raising the cost for students and seems indifferent to the plight of students who are working harder to survive while they’re in school, paying more for fewer educational offerings and accumulating greater debt. Napolitano herself earns $570,000 annually, plus more than $128,000 a year for housing and transportation. How much is enough?

However, if Napolitano is to be believed, cutting her pay and the pay of all the UC chancellors (UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla makes $411,000, plus free housing, a car allowance and $102,771 for “relocation”) wouldn’t close the UC’s big budget shortfall. If the state won’t pay up, she has no choice but to get the money from the students. The only other choice would be to reduce educational quality, which would also violate the spirit of the master plan, not to mention damage the state’s economic future. 

To be sure, this is on the state, too. The state cut funding to the UC system during the recent recession, and even with some restoration in funding, the system is $460 million short of where it was in 2007-08. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a 4-percent increase in funding for each of the next two years—another $120 million annually—if UC doesn’t raise tuition and agrees to some cost-cutting ideas. Meanwhile, Napolitano says tuition will go up even if the UC gets the 4-percent increase. She wants an additional 9 percent—$270 million—to scrap the tuition hike. Proposed solutions from state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León fell on deaf ears at UC headquarters.

As Brown and the Legislature head toward next year’s budget process—Brown will propose a spending plan in January—they, along with Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents, should take a look at the Master Plan for Higher Education and remind themselves of its philosophical underpinnings. We’re veering away from the spirit of the plan and toward a system in which only children of families with financial means can afford to pursue their academic and career goals. That, in turn, will lead us to permanent socioeconomic stratification and a bleak economic future.

California must make its most prestigious public universities accessible to anyone with a desire to work hard and dream big. That should be a no-brainer.

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