What UC's funding battle means beyond California

System's president, state's governor play 'a game of chicken'

National tensions are playing out in California's higher education budget battle.

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, on Wednesday asked the Board of Regents to approve the end of the three-year tuition freeze and approve a hike. The Board of Regents responded on Thursday, passing Napolitano's tuition increase by a vote of 14-7.

But Napolitano's actions are opposed by the state's Gov. Jerry Brown, who says additional state funding is contingent on flat tuition.

"There is a game of chicken," says Hans Johnson, higher education expert at Public Policy Institute of California, adding "it's not clear to me at all how it's going to turn out."

Background on the proposed increase

Under the proposal, in-state tuition could rise 5% annually, from its current rate of $12,192 to as high as $15,564 by the 2019-2020 academic year. UC officials are quick to note that only 30% of in-state undergraduates pay full tuition, and approximately half pay no tuition at all after accounting for financial aid and tax credits.

Napolitano says the increases are required to help pay for rising compensation costs and expand enrollment by 5,000 students over five years, but has noted that additional funding from the state could have alleviated the need for tuition increases.

Specifically, Napolitano said an annual 4% funding increase proposed by Brown was inadequate to prevent tuition increases.

National implications

The budget battle is a microcosm of the national debate over how to fund public universities.

In 1960, California formed a plan to provide low-cost or free higher education to residents, but schools have become more and more dependent on tuition for funding. In 2001-2002, in-state tuition and fees totaled $3,429. Today, they are about three times that. Current state funding is approximately $460 million less than it was for 2007-2008.

"As a political matter, state officials have made the judgment they don’t want to pay for higher education for our citizens," says David Plank, a Policy Analysis for California Education economist, "what were once public universities are now private universities that receive some subsidy from the states."

Napolitano's and Brown's plans put the UC system on two different paths as well, argues the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, echoing similar discussions happening nationwide about university business models.  

Brown wants to see more online courses, less nonessential research, more community college transfers, fewer in-state freshmen, and heavier professor teaching loads.

But the editorial board argues that Brown is not acknowledging UC's place as "the jewel in the crown" of California's public higher education system. UC researchers and faculty have won 62 Nobel prizes, and according to a 2011 study, for every $1 the state invests in the schools, $10 in gross state product is created.

"The state is falling far short of what it needs to give if UC is to retain its luster," they write. The tuition increases come from loss of state support, not frivolous spending, according to a report from Public Policy Institute of California.

While students have protested the tuition hikes, the funds raised from tuition increases could allow the system to enroll 5,000 more students, maintain full scholarships for 55% of them, and offer more and smaller classes, according to the editorial board.

"The increases may be necessary to protect the university," they say.

Governor Brown must now decide how much state funding he will allocate to UC. The approved plan allowed Napolitano to cancel the tuition increases if UC receives sufficient funding from the state. The governor has said that he plans to request a special investigation of UC's spending and that "next steps will be outlined" in January, when he proposes his budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year (Gordon, Los Angeles Times, 11/21; Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times, 11/17; Pickert, Time, 11/19).

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague