By Nanette Asimov
For many university students in California, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal that state lawmakers freeze tuition at current levels for four more years would be a dream come true.
But Tuesday, the state’s independent legislative analyst urged lawmakers to reject the idea and said it could have nightmarish consequences.
“While this would help current students, it likely would increase volatility for future students,” Mac Taylor said in a report that examines the potential consequences of Brown’s budget proposal across public higher education: the University of California, California State University and the state’s community colleges.
Past tuition freezes — in the late 1980s and between 1995 and 2002 — have all been followed by steep increases, Taylor said.
Taylor’s report comes as state lawmakers prepare to negotiate a statewide budget for 2013-14. Unlike recent years, in which higher education and other state-funded services expected deep cuts because the state had to close huge budget deficits, California is in a period of recovery. Brown is proposing to spend 13 percent more on higher education next year, an increase of $1.4 billion that would bring total spending on public colleges and universities to almost $12 billion.
The governor is also proposing steady increases in funding for higher education over the next four years that would be tied to improvements in performance: better graduation rates at CSU, where just 47 percent of students graduate within six years, compared with 80 percent at UC, and higher transfer rates at community colleges, where just 23 percent of students graduate or transfer within three years.
At the same time, Brown has been sympathetic to the plight of middle-class students who don’t qualify for financial aid and who have seen their tuition skyrocket. At CSU, basic annual tuition is $5,472 — double what it was five years ago. At UC, the $12,192 price tag is nearly twice what it was in 2006.
So the governor proposed a four-year tuition freeze.
In urging state lawmakers to reject the freeze, Taylor recommended a policy that would set tuition and fees as a share of educational costs.
Moderate hikes sought
Without providing more details, the report called the idea a “simple mechanism for annually adjusting” tuition and fees.
“We believe it would be more likely than the governor’s proposal to result in moderate, gradual, and predictable tuition increases over time,” Taylor said in his report.
Although it’s not clear which way the Legislature will go, there is political appeal among the Democratic majority for the idea of freezing tuition.
The past several years have seen large, loud and sometimes violent student protests on many campuses, notably at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, where the pepper-spraying of peaceful demonstrators transformed the issue of tuition into a politically charged debate over police misconduct and free speech.
Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said he understands Taylor’s argument that an economic downturn could provoke sudden and painfully high tuition hikes.
“But to me, that’s not a reason to not freeze the fees,” he said. “It’s a reason to ensure that we are investing in our university system.” Williams said the situation faced by middle-class students should outweigh fears of future volatility.
As part of an agreement with the governor to receive an additional $125 million next year, UC did not raise tuition this year for the first time since 2006; CSU did raise tuition but is returning the money.
Both universities have said that as the state cut their funding, they needed to raise tuition to maintain quality. Neither UC nor CSU immediately jumped into the debate over tuition increases, although Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for CSU, pointed out that agreements like the one Brown is proposing tend to disintegrate as soon as the economy goes south.
“There’s no way to guarantee funding,” he said, noting that CSU was supposed to get an extra $200 million in 2009-10 under the last multiyear funding agreement approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Instead, CSU lost $684 million — and raised tuition by 32 percent.
— Reach Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org