Nicholas Goldberg: Will California keep promise to keep UC affordable?

In a letter to the Times in May, Riverside’s Ralph Jones recalled how easy and cheap it used to be to go to the University of California.

When he arrived at UC Riverside in 1968, he said he was paying $105 a quarter in non-tuition plus books. He paid $75 a month to share what he called a “nice” two-bedroom apartment. To move to Berkeley, all he had to do was sign a card and show up.

“I look back on that time as a time of affordable abundance,” he wrote. “I pity the students trapped in a system that was once designed for essentially open access to all well-graded California students.”

It seems like a fantasy now doesn’t it? UC was completely tuition free until 1970.

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

This month, when the UC system’s 10 campuses — from Davis in the north to San Diego in the south — reopen for the new school year, that’s far from the case. The average tuition for state residents alone is $13,104.

That alone might not be the end of the world financially, especially since UCs are waiving tuition for low-income families. But when you add in the cost of housing, food, transportation, campus fees, and books, you’re talking real money pretty soon: The estimated cost for a domestic student living on campus is $38,504 for the 2022-23 school year.

It’s no wonder you hear about students racking up debt or punishingly working long hours while juggling their schoolwork. Financial aid or not, it’s not surprising that some kids can’t afford to attend UC, or have to live at home, or sleep in their cars, or can’t afford enough to eat.

A 2020 report commissioned by UC Regents found that 39% of students had “experienced food insecurity” during college and 5% had experienced homelessness. A May poll found that 60% of Californians believe a UC education is largely or entirely unaffordable.

And while there are many financial aid options available to low- and middle-income students, they and their families are often unaware of them.

Ralph Jones’ letter reminded me that the dual promise of affordability and access dates back to the founding of the University of California. In March 1868, Governor Henry Haight signed a charter establishing a state university, declaring that “admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the state” as soon as financially feasible.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education, developed under then-UC President Clark Kerr and signed into law by Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in 1960, reaffirmed the commitment to tuition-free, universally accessible education.

So what happened?

One thing that happened was Ronald Reagan, in his 1966 campaign for the governorship, fiercely championed the idea of ​​charging students for their UC education. He was an outspoken critic of the university, attacking the “small minority of beatniks, radicals and dirty talk advocates” who irritated him with their protest marches.

After his election, Reagan promptly fired Kerr. As for free tuition, he just wasn’t a government-provided type.

“Teaching is not a dirty word,” Reagan told the Los Angeles Breakfast Club in July 1967. “… I think we all understand here that there is no such thing as free public education. The only question is: who pays? So far, the taxpayer has borne most of the cost of education in California.”

Three years later, UC added an “education fee” — $150 — to its undergraduate cost. And so it was on to the races.

Tuition fees began to rise, followed by cuts in government support for the university. Tuition fees tripled between 1995 and 2011.

In 2011, the total amount of tuition paid by UC students for tuition exceeded state funding for the university system for the first time. Californians who once seemed willing to pay taxes for good public schools and colleges have, I think, grown weary of the expense.

Despite the tuition increases, the university has done a great deal to remain affordable and accessible. More than 40% of students are the first in their families to go to college, helping make UC a robust engine of social mobility. More than 70% of the students receive scholarships or grants. A significant portion of tuition fees is diverted back into financial aid.

Today, 56% of UC students pay no tuition at all. No family earning less than $80,000 pays.

For the 2022-23 school year, several other initiatives are underway to reduce student debt. The state has dramatically expanded the Cal Grant program, which was already the largest such grant program in the country. It has increased its middle-class scholarship program fivefold for families making less than $200,000 a year.

UC has established “Basic Needs Centers” on its campuses, which provide students with access to grocery supplies, emergency housing, and affordable medical care.

“Affordability is a real issue, but I think we’re doing a lot to address the issue,” said Rich Leib, the new chair of UC’s board of directors. “Sometimes the problem is in the marketing. Families don’t always realize that we can often put together financial aid packages that make college a real opportunity for lower-income students.”

Another point about tuition: To the extent that tuition is diverted to fund financial aid, it actually serves as a subsidy from wealthier students to lower-income students. With that in mind, it would be too simplistic to say that tuition is at the root of the affordability problem. It’s more of a symbol of that.

I’ve always loved the idea of ​​Kerr’s master plan – an essentially free college education for all Californians. It was a taxpayer investment in the next generation and in the future of the state. What Reagan didn’t like is exactly what I loved: the self-care community.

Unfortunately we’re not going back to free college. But the commitment to affordability, access, diversity, social mobility and academic excellence should never be lost sight of.

@Nick_Goldberg Nicholas Goldberg: Will California keep promise to keep UC affordable?

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