Tuesday, February 18

Austin Pink: More programs like Assembly Bill 34 cannot replace direct funding for UC

More than 20 students occupied the Powell Library steps to protest the tuition hike and lack of university funding. (Daily Bruin file photo)

In January, the University of California Board of Regents voted to increase the cost of tuition for the 2017-2018 academic year following a six-year price freeze.

One regent called the price hike a “Band-Aid,” but it won’t keep California education from bleeding out.

Amid backlash from students, the California State Assembly introduced Assembly Bill 34 earlier this month to quell concerns about the ever-worsening financial realities of higher education. By establishing opt-in savings accounts for every child born in California, supporters hope AB 34 will invest in California children while closing the gap of wealth inequality.

Sadly, this initiative is just another example of a golden policy made of brass. Policymakers should look to lowering the sticker price of higher education rather than adding to the already-crowded patchwork of financial aid and entitlement programs. Specifically, the state government should increase funding for California’s universities and enforce responsible budgeting by the universities themselves.

The rising cost of education is one of the most-discussed issues in California state politics. Every year there are board meetings, student protests and a few public apologies, and we’re left with tuition prices that are consistently unmanageable.

Proponents of AB 34 believe jump-starting student savings is the way to tackle these rising costs. “By creating an opt-out child savings account, we can jump-start our children’s financial independence,” said state assembly member Adrin Nazarian, the chief proponent of the bill, in a statement to The Sacramento Bee. Nazarian’s office did not respond to the Daily Bruin’s requests for comment.

The bill will create a savings account for every child born in California after Jan. 1, 2018 and make an initial contribution to all account holders. Under the bill’s proposal, the government would grant more money to students in households making less than $75,000. The state would also match all contributions made by those same households.

That certainly sounds nice, but there are several glaring problems.

First, as reported in 2015, the median household in California makes $61,818 a year. Under the bill, the state would have to match contributions of over half of California households with new children, assuming those households opt in. That could add up quickly.

More importantly, there’s no guarantee this money will even go toward California higher education. According to the Pew Institute, only 51 percent of low-income high school graduates will attend college, not including the 6.5 percent of high school dropouts, which is comprised of predominantly low-income students.

AB 34 addresses these very problems, but the reality is that much of the money contributed will likely not even be directed toward college expenses. In other words, this program is not so much student financial aid as it is a general entitlement program.

[Related: Student leaders’ Fund the UC campaign aims to prevent tuition hike]

Furthermore, this type of savings program isn’t particularly novel. Tax-deferred savings programs for college already exist in California. Scholarshare, California’s existing 529 college savings program, allows the voluntary creation of tax-deferred savings accounts in which only qualified withdrawals toward educational expenses receive tax benefits. AB 34 attempts to extend this type of service to more Californians but is a wasteful, redundant means to that end.

Federal loans, grants, tax incentives, scholarships and state-sponsored savings accounts are all, in their wildly contrived existences, trying to accomplish the same thing: Help people pay for college.

Rather than concoct a bevy of Frankenstein’s monster entitlements, the California Legislature needs to directly lower the sticker price of its public universities. That means two things: increasing the public funding to California’s universities and mandating better financial management by the universities themselves.

The lack of public funding is the most pressing issue for students. The Public Policy Institute of California published a study regarding decreased funding for California universities. The institute noticed a trend in recent decades of cutting courses, programs and student services as a way to balance budgets. Although funding for California higher education is slowly improving, the state cut nearly $2 billion between 2007 and 2012, or half of its per-student funding. The PPIC also found that decreased state funding for public higher education has caused California high school graduates to be less likely to enroll in any four-year college.

The best way to lower the financial barrier to higher education isn’t through a slew of new grants, loans or circuitous savings programs that require new regulations, personnel and glossy press releases. Rather, policymakers in Sacramento need to increase public funding and reduce the price students directly pay. Particularly, funds that are appropriated to programs like AB 34 should be redirected to the educational institutions themselves.

And with added funding, universities need to be held more accountable with their spending. According to reports in Washington Monthly, the number of full-time professors at universities has grown by about 50 percent in the past four decades, yet the number of administrative staff has ballooned by an astounding 240 percent.

[Throwback Thursday: Tuition increases throughout the years]

It makes sense. On campuses like UCLA, there seems to be constant administrative expansion, renovation and a hundred new councils with nothing but a mission statement and a sizable endowment.

Considering the policy trend toward defunding higher education, some may argue that these entitlement programs are necessary to assist low-income students who are particularly vulnerable. However, the state shouldn’t waste its limited resources supporting bizarre, half-baked programs like those proposed in AB 34. Increased funding to public education, at the very least, will directly improve financial flexibility for the universities and all the students they service.

With bills like AB 34, it’s clear the issue of higher education accessibility isn’t going anywhere. Unless policy shifts away from tired Band-Aid solutions and toward concise, effective action that addresses the heart of college affordability, we’ll continue to have public education that is costly, unequal and unsatisfactory.

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Pink was an Opinion columnist.

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