Why tuition increases make sense at UC and CSU

Nobody likes the high cost of college. Still, by most measures, the University of California remains a comparatively good deal.

Particularly for Californians. Thanks to serious efforts in recent years by Gov. Jerry Brown, state legislators and UC President Janet Napolitano, in-state tuition at the UC has held flat at $11,160 since 2011 even as demand and enrollment have risen.

The state offers so much in-state financial aid that, last year, 57 percent of students of UC Davis and 75 percent at UC Merced effectively paid no tuition.

UC campuses dominate national rankings for public higher education. And the odds of getting an in-state slot are high and improving, thanks to state lawmakers’ push to add thousands of spaces for resident students.

Fall 2016 enrollment included an additional 7,500 residents in the overall undergraduate head count of 210,000. Another 2,500 in-state slots are planned for next year.

From this perspective, it’s hard to take issue with the proposed undergraduate tuition increase that will go later this month before the UC Board of Regents. At 2.5 percent, the bump would amount to $282 a year in 2017-18, with a separate $54 increase in student services fees.

Even the notoriously frugal Brown grudgingly allows that the additional revenue is “probably needed,” though he called for more cost cuts and bigger reserves, at the UC and at the California State University, which also is weighing a modest tuition increase.

Adding enrollment, by necessity, adds demand for faculty, support services, classes and housing. Even with the state keeping its promise to increase its UC appropriation by 4 percent again this year, demand has far surpassed supply.

UC Berkeley, for instance, has added 2,800 undergraduates during the past six years without adding faculty to teach them, according to Napolitano’s office.

At UC Davis, administrative staff – the employees handling mental health, housing and other supportive services – shrank 12 percent, even as the undergraduate population increased by 13 percent.

Student-faculty ratios at UC San Diego have risen to 27-to-1, far beyond the state’s agreed-upon target of 19-to-1 or so. At other campuses, seminars for freshmen and transfers have given way to big lecture-style courses and students in need of mental health services often have to wait weeks to start regular therapy sessions.

And that’s without mentioning the aging facilities at, say, UC Davis, or the housing costs that have turned crunch into crisis at UC Berkeley and UCLA.

In a meeting with The Sacramento Bee editorial board, Napolitano said she plans to use proceeds of any increase to expand core classes, add graduate assistants and bring down the student-faculty ratio to facilitate on-time graduation, and to add to the pot of student financial aid.

As students and parents know all too well, housing is the biggest cost of college. The state ought to find ways to help moderate rent and speed apartment construction. UC hopes to add 14,000 housing units to campuses across the system through public-private partnerships during the next three years.

It also would be great if the state could use its financial clout to help lower interest rates on student loans that burden so many California families, particularly given Brown’s desire to shore up aid to poorer students by phasing out middle-class scholarships.

The state faces a possible economic slowdown, and potentially costly conflicts with the incoming Trump administration. Nobody wants to pay more for tuition, but lawmakers will have their hands full and likely won’t be willing to buy out the $88 million that would be generated by the increase.

Universities should strive to keep costs as low as possible. But after six years without a tuition increase, Napolitano has suggested a modest and reasonable step.