Nothing is more certain for University of California students than tuition hikes.
Almost every year, students watch as UC administrators and state politicians scramble to negotiate state funding to avoid raising tuition fees. And almost every time, the UC walks away with less funding than it hopes for, along with a bag of threats from lawmakers that the state will punish the University if tuition fees increase.
This year is no different. The UC Board of Regents is considering raising tuition fees at its meeting this week by 2.5 percent, or $288, to account for inflation. In his 2018-2019 proposed budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a 3 percent increase in base state funding levels for the UC. The UC responded by arguing that the increase was less than what was discussed when the University agreed in 2015 to enroll an additional 2,000 in-state students for the upcoming academic year.
Rather than playing a yearly game of tug-of-war with the UC, the state government should do what it should have done decades ago: guarantee funding minimums for the UC in its constitution. Providing funds that grow with inflation and are safe from future economic downturns is the obvious way for the state to live out its obligation to the University.
Students have been getting the short end of the stick for quite some time now. The UC received more than 5 percent of the state’s general fund in the late 1980s, but now only sees about 2.7 percent of the fund. In other words, the average amount of funding California provides per student has decreased from $19,100 in 1990 to $7,160 in 2016 – a whopping 62.5 percent decrease.
The state’s commitment to the UC is still uncertain. Brown’s proposed budget only affords the University an additional $92.1 million in state funding – about 1 percent of the UC’s total academic expenditures in the 2016-2017 school year. It also includes siphoning off $5 billion in state revenue to increase California’s rainy-day fund to $13.5 billion. It’s not hard to see why the regents aren’t happy with such a small increase.
The past decade is evidence there are serious consequences for not guaranteeing state funding. State financial support for the UC fell drastically after the 2008 recession, and the University was forced to make up by enrolling more nonresident students who pay hefty supplemental fees in addition to in-state tuition costs. The state eventually found out via numerous audits, and legislators threatened to withhold money if the UC didn’t keep tuition fees low and enroll more local students, perpetuating the cycle of inadequate and uncertain UC funding.
[Related: Editorial: Auditors should stay unbiased, stop applying political pressure to UC]
As a result, students have seen class sizes grow, tuitions rise and university housing become limited. What students and the UC need is stable state funding that grows with inflation to support essential University services. Marginal funding increases do little for an educational institution that operates on a budget of nearly $32 billion.
Brown’s intention to save for the next economic crisis is prudent – a sturdy rainy-day fund will help California maintain essential expenditures in case of an economic recession. But the state has a responsibility to the UC and other state universities. The University is meant to provide affordable degree programs and world-class research facilities to bolster California’s economy and to improve the lives of its residents, and the state needs to foot some of the bill.
Sure, incorporating permanent funding provisions may not sound appealing to lawmakers trying to save state funds. But investing in higher education requires money – and it’s about time California started providing some.