In a victory for California’s public higher education students, the University of California Board of Regents has delayed a vote to increase UC tuition by $342 for the 2018-19 academic school year. The delay of tuition is an important victory for lower-income students in the UC system. However, the threat of future tuition increases is destined to materialize unless the state legislature takes action to prioritize the state’s higher education.
When the University of California was first formed in 1868, it was created with the promise that “tuition shall be free to all residents of the State.” For nearly 100 years, this model was sustained; California residents were able to thrive as students in one of the most prestigious public university systems in the world without paying tuition, save for minor non-instruction related fees that didn’t exceed $25 a year in the 1920s. In 1960, The California State Department of Education, in collaboration with the UC Board of Regents, released “A Master Plan for Higher Education” for 1960-1975, which “reaffirm(ed) the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to residents of the state.”
In 1966 Ronald Reagan assumed office as governor of California and began aggressively pursuing cuts to funding for the UC, CSU and CCC (California Community College) systems. During his eight-year tenure as governor, Reagan vigorously opposed any rise to UC funding and cut the state’s allowance to the UCs by $11 million in 1971. In 1966, California spent approximately $20,000 per student. As UC funding initially dropped and enrollment continued to increase, the funding dropped down to below $18,000 per student in 1973, and the UCs were forced to abandon the century-old commitment to free attendance for California residents in 1975, requiring approximately $600 ($2,783 adjusted for inflation) annually.
By 1995, the UC’s budget was only 66 percent covered by the state, and as the universities expanded and added more students, UC annual tuition had risen to $4,139 ($6,779 adjusted for inflation). Correspondingly, state spending per UC student dropped slightly to approximately $17,000 per student.
The largest runaway between state funding and and students, however, actually began around the year 2000. From 2000 until 2012, state expenditures per student dropped from $23,000 down to approximately $12,000 per student. The LA Times reports that the general funds the state provided for the UCs during the 2016-17 academic year was only $7,560 per student. The explanation for this phenomenon is not that California has cut funding for the UCs in recent years; on the contrary, Governor Jerry Brown has vocally pushed a policy of modest increases to the UC budgets that are aimed at forcing the universities to make more efficient use of taxpayer funds.
The declining funding per student is an effect of the universities taking on a significantly increased number of applicants with a very modest increase in state funds. According to the LA Times, currently less than 38 percent of the UC’s budget is currently covered by California public funding, meaning that over 62 percent of the UC’s costs are covered largely by tuition and student fees, which are currently set at $12,630. This current price of tuition, which does not include housing, nutrition, textbooks, access codes and other extraneous costs, is 21 percent of the state’s per capita income of $58,272.
Although the UC’s original vision of tuition-free education to all residents may be outdated given the increased demand for higher education in California, the current tuition prices have clearly become the main source of funding for the universities. Shifting the burden of payment upon the students is a fundamental betrayal of the University of California’s promise.
In just the past 18 years, the UC has experienced a hollowing of its proportional per-student funding from the state treasury. Unfortunately, this trend is unlikely to cease anytime soon; as the universities continue to expand, students will have to continue to pay a greater and greater share of the their budgets. The drastically rising tuition rates are placing incredible pressures on students: 62.5 percent of UCR’s undergraduate students have been identified as food insecure, and 57 percent of the student population are Pell Grant awardees, of which the average student’s adjusted family gross income is just $20,302. A raise of $342 in yearly tuition can make all the difference in a student’s ability to purchase sufficient food or basic items necessary to live a comfortable life.
The expansion of the universities is both important and necessary to the UC’s educational mission. Accompanying these trends however, the state of California has a duty to preserve the unparalleled quality of the system without jeopardizing its character. In the face of stagnating budgets, the UCs have done a tremendous job carrying forward as the most effective public university system in the world, but their status as icons of affordability has been left behind. Ultimately, the UCs either have to sacrifice quality or quantity if not given proper financial support. It is incumbent on Governor Brown and the State Legislature to take a bold step forward to provide for the UC, and bring students back to a time where the only obstacle holding one back from a superlative education was one’s academic record.