Editorials

UC needs to make a better case to increase tuition

In this Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, Caitriona Smyth, center, yells as she and other students march under Sather Gate during a protest against tuition increases at UC Berkeley. Now, as record numbers of high school graduates in California qualify for admission, the UC and CSU systems are considering raising tuition for the first time in six years.
In this Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, Caitriona Smyth, center, yells as she and other students march under Sather Gate during a protest against tuition increases at UC Berkeley. Now, as record numbers of high school graduates in California qualify for admission, the UC and CSU systems are considering raising tuition for the first time in six years. AP file

If this past political season has taught us anything, it is that angry people shouldn’t be ignored.

As the 26 University of California regents convened last week in San Francisco, they were met by a roomful of angry students. “Two, four, six, eight – can’t afford to graduate,” they chanted.

On the board’s agenda was a discussion of a 2.5 percent tuition increase, the first in six years. That amounts to about $300 for in-state students, but about five times that for out-of-state students.

Doesn’t sound like much, perhaps, but tuition is not the only cost for UC students. Rents in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego or Westwood (around UCLA) are astronomical, often around $1,100 a month for a bedroom near campus. Meals are extra. So are books ($500 or even $1,200 a semester) and there’s always a “student services” fee of around $1,000, which is also going up.

At UC Merced, where off-campus rents are more reasonable than almost anywhere in California, upward of 85 percent of students get financial aid. They’re not wealthy.

For their $12,300 tuition, students receive – if they work hard – a world-class education in a system that is the envy of the world. Such quality isn’t cheap.

UC students on every campus have good access to some of the leading thinkers in the world in their fields. At UC Merced, there is a faculty member for every 18 students. At UCLA and Berkeley, that ratio is 17-to-1.

There’s another ratio we found interesting. There are roughly 240,000 students in the 10-campus UC system and around 270,000 full- and part-time employees. That works out to a 1-to-1.1 ratio. But if the student-to-faculty ratio is 17-to-1 on the best campuses (and 22-to-1 at some others), then what are those other 16 to 21 employees-per-student doing?

Most UC campuses have a chancellor, an executive vice chancellor or two, at least five vice chancellors, two or three vice provosts and legions of administrators in charge of health services, risk management, ethics compliance, fundraising, “equity and inclusion,” public relations, human resources, dorm life and so much more.

We’ve heard UC President Janet Napolitano insist she’s made cuts, but the total UC workforce went up 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to a July report to regents. And earlier this year, state auditor Elaine Howle reported that if any belt-tightening had occurred, it was difficult to find. She couldn’t any proof that it had actually taken place.

In fairness, only 106,000 UC employees are full-time. But consider the state university system of New York, which had 460,000 students in 2014. It serviced them all with 89,870 employees – a student-to-staff ratio of 5-to-1.

We are proud of the UCs, and their place in our three-tiered system of higher education that includes the California State University system and our community colleges. We want to keep them strong, and that requires adequate funding – from the community colleges to the UC.

But one of the things we love most is that the campuses provide a superior, high-value education at a reasonable cost.

Before raising tuition, the UCs should challenge the status quo and do the kind of cost cutting and innovation necessary to keep the system affordable. Until the UC system shows it has done all it can to lower costs, it’s difficult to justify even modest tuition increases.

If the regents don’t like hearing chants from angry students, they should prove to them that their tuition is not only a bargain but that any increase is utterly necessary.

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