California’s mission of providing residents with access to affordable, high-quality public education suffered a setback this week as University of California officials sharply increased student fees, driven by economic realities that are forcing similar steps at public university systems across the country.
In response to a state funding gap of more than $1 billion, the Regents of the University of California decided Thursday to increase student fees for residents next year by 32 percent. The increase means undergraduate students will now pay more than $10,000 annually — triple what students paid a decade ago.
The decision comes as the university system plans to cut budgets and slash programs and jobs, and it prompted student demonstrations on campuses across the state. The protests continued Friday at UC Berkeley, where students occupied a classroom building and several were arrested.
Similar struggles are playing out at public universities and colleges across the country, as many states face massive shortfalls and steep drop-offs in tax revenue. At least 35 states have made significant cuts to public colleges and universities, resulting in tuition increases, according to Nicholas Johnson, director of the State Fiscal Project at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In Florida, tuition is up by 15 percent at all 11 public universities. In New York, the state university tuition is up by 15 percent, and students in Washington also face tuition increases, Johnson said. Michigan and New Mexico have made deep cuts to need-based financial aid programs.
"The recession is ending, at least maybe, but budget shortfalls are just now starting to have their worst effects on colleges and universities," Johnson said. "The budgets for next year are even more troubled than the budgets were for this year."
The cuts and fee increases have been particularly painful in California, a state whose higher education system has been a model in terms of affordability and quality. California State University and the state’s community college systems lately have been raising fees and turning tens of thousands of students away.
California has been hit harder than any other state by the fiscal crisis, due to sharp decreases in revenue. And it has struggled to manage the crisis, primarily because the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority to raise taxes.
Between February and July of this year, California lawmakers have made more than $30 billion in cuts, much of which has focused on health and education funding. The state has cut $1.4 billion in spending for public universities over the past two years, a number that would be higher without federal stimulus funds, according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance.
Even so, the crisis is far from over. California faces a $20.7 billion budget shortfall going into next year, officials say.
The increases are not expected to affect low-income students, as a third of the money generated from the increases will go to financial assistance for those students. But the changes will affect middle-income students — those who may not quality for need-based aid, but nevertheless may not be able to afford the tuition increases.
"First and foremost, it will affect access and affordability, and those that are fortunate enough to get in will see larger classrooms, fewer course offerings," said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
"For a system as large as the University of California, it certainly stands out," Hurley said, but "the bottom line is that, by and large, the regents did not have a choice in raising tuition."