Cal Poly’s proposed fee lets state off the hook

It’s easy to see why Cal Poly officials are proposing a new “student success fee” that would eventually generate $14 million per year for the university. Just look at the numbers: In the late 1980s, state support accounted for 90 percent of the university’s revenue. That’s since dwindled to 41 percent.

And it could get worse: If Gov. Brown’s tax increase proposal doesn’t pass in November, Cal Poly could lose an additional $11 million.

Faced with those grim statistics, Cal Poly is looking at a new fee that would be phased in over three years: $160 per quarter starting this fall; $210 per quarter in fall 2013; and $260 per quarter beginning in fall, 2014. The fee will be put to an advisory vote of the student body on Feb. 29.

Given the extraordinary hit that state colleges and universities have suffered since the economy tanked, we agree there is a need for an infusion of revenue. But we would find this fee more palatable if it were structured differently. Ideally, we would like to see it sunset in, say, four or five years. Or, we would like to see a trigger included so that the fee would be reduced or eliminated as the state economy recovers.

Otherwise, this pattern of ever-increasing fees is never going to end; it will be all too easy to keep tacking on fees instead of holding Sacramento accountable for providing a decent level of support.

Case in point: Back in 2002, Cal Poly officials lobbied for new, college-specific fees of up to $200 per quarter to ensure students could get the classes they needed to graduate and to maintain the quality of polytechnic programs.

A decade later, we’re hearing that exact same argument for the student success fee, and if nothing changes, we’ll keep on hearing it until many families are priced out of four-year colleges altogether.

Approving a fee increase on a temporary basis would at least send the message that families aren’t willing to bail out the state forever.

It would also help to hold the university accountable for making good use of the additional revenue.

It’s one thing to offer these rosy but vague examples of how the student success fee could be used:

Increasing access to classes and laboratories.

Increasing retention and graduation rates.

Providing more “learn-bydoing” experiences.

Enhancing diversity.

Increasing support for student athletes.

Providing more counseling services.

However, it’s another thing to deliver.

If the fee were revisited in five years, that would provide an opportunity to step back and look at how the money was spent.

That’s exactly what’s happening in the city of San Luis Obispo.

Measure Y, the half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2006, included an eight-year sunset clause. If voters aren’t happy with the way the city council has used the revenue, they won’t renew it.

Again, we recognize that these have been extraordinarily difficult times for the state of California. If Cal Poly students believe it would be in their best interest to approve the student success fee to protect the quality of their education, far be it from us to disagree.

Yet there does come atime to say enough is enough, and to demand that the state Legislature provide a decent level of support to public education at every level.

We believe that time has come. Whether or not the student success fee is implemented at Cal Poly, we should make it clear that we will not stand by and see California’s system of affordable, quality higher education become nothing more than a memory.