Education Reform Must Tackle College Affordability for UC Schools

Two University of California campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA, rank in the top 15 schools in the world, according to 2011-2012 rankings compiled by Times Higher Education in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, UC San Diego made the list the top 50 slots, on par with Ivy League schools in the U.S. and their international equivalents.. This is a great point of pride given that, unlike schools like Oxford and Harvard, the UC system is a public institution.

As a UCLA alumnus, I must admit a sense of favoritism toward the University of California system. However, the drastic increase in price that I paid for school, from 2008 until 2012, pushes me to assess my alma mater and the UC system with a critical eye. One can look at world rankings, the number of Nobel laureates, or NCAA titles (UCLA has the most with 108.... cough, cough) that a school boasts and assume that the institution is doing well. Still, there is something important for a high quality educational system besides prestige and athletics: affordability. Tuition at the University of California has more than doubled since 2008 such that student contributions now exceed that of the state government: estimated average student expenditure was $8,540 compared to $6,770 provided by state general funds in 2011-2012. 

Many people immediately respond “so what?” Tuition at almost any college or university increases on a regular basis. That’s how life works. You must pay a high price to attend a high caliber university.

Well, the ability of students to afford a high quality education does matter. Whether students can pay their tuition while still having enough time to succeed academically strongly affects students’ retention rates, their success after graduation, and their ability to contribute back to the economy.

Moreover, affordability affects student families and local economies. The impacts of tuition increases and student financial security swells beyond the physical college campus: in response to $650 million in cuts to the UC schools, the Board of Regents increased tuition by 9.6% in July 2011. These increases forced students to find several hundred dollars extra to pay by the time school began in September. The sudden financial burden that this decision put on students and their families caused some students to drop from the quarter and others to tighten their budgets even more. Unplanned budget changes reduced the amount of cash in households and weakened students' ability to spend money in their surrounding college towns. In Westwood, the village that surrounds UCLA, small restaurants and businesses have been seeing a significant decline in sales in direct correlation to increases in tuition; some have even shut down as a result.

Skyrocketing tuition is not likely to be a phenomena of the past. A vote against California Governor Jerry Brown’s income tax measure for households earning over $250,000, Proposition 30, in November would cut $350 million dollars from the UC system. The UC Board of Regents has already stated that if these deep cuts occur, it will instate a mid-year tuition increase of 20.3%. Students and their families will have to find $2,500 additional funds to pay for the 2012-2013 than they originally budget for.

The consequences of a tuition policy tied to uncertain state revenue will be felt in the long run  with soaring rates of student debt. In fact, student debt in the United States is hitting the $1 trillion mark, making it higher than total U.S. credit card debt. Student debt cannot be eliminated by filing for bankruptcy; it sticks with students for life.

What can we learn from this? First, the University of California needs to implement a stable tuition policy, allowing students and families to plan their budgets farther in advance. A reactionary tuition policy is not serving the students or the larger economy very well.

Second, California needs to tame its budget deficit so that public schools can rely on a predictable flow of revenue. Proposition 30, if passed, can only start to close the budget gap. We know that California’s system of funding is in need of larger reform. Californians need to revisit a different ballot measure: Proposition 13. Staggeringly low caps on commercial property taxes implemented by Prop 13, among other budget and revenue policies, have left a gaping hole in the California state budget that only widens every fiscal year.

Reforming the commercial property cap in Proposition 13, the third rail of California politics, will not be simple or painless. However, the discomfort associated with creating basic tax reform is far less than the pain being dealt to quality public education in California.