The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."...  ...William Shakespeare.

Commentary of the Day - June 18, 2009:  Fees or Tuition - Let's Call it What it is.

When the Irascible Professor first enrolled at the Berkeley Campus of the University of California in the fall of 1957 he paid $52 per semester in student fees.  This covered both the Associated Students fee and health care at Cowell Hospital on campus.  (In those days there was a full-service, acute care hospital on campus even though Berkeley did not have a medical school.)  A few semesters later the student fee was raised from $52 to $54 per semester, where it remained until his graduation in January of 1962.  There was no tuition in the University of California system at that time, and fees were strictly for incidental services.  Thanks to that the Irascible Professor was able to get through his first year at Berkeley on about $600 in savings from a summer job fighting brush fires and two small scholarships that totaled about $250.

The social contract between the state of California and its citizens with regard to higher education was quite clear when the University of California was established in 1868.  The taxpayers of California would cover the direct costs of educating students at its public university, which would be open to all who qualified academically (the first students -- all men -- were admitted in 1869 and one year later enrollment was opened to women) regardless of financial status.  In return, graduates of the University of California would provide the state with a steady supply of men and women who would enter the professions or who would help to grow the economy of the state by their activities in the business world.  They would more than repay the taxpayers for the cost of their education through the higher taxes that they would pay to the state on their earnings after graduation.  As California grew the University of California expanded to a system of 10 campuses that included graduate and undergraduate programs as well as distinguished professional schools.  The social contract was extended to an even larger system of state college campuses (which later became the California State University system) and to the largest system of community colleges in the country.  The goal was to make higher education as accessible and as affordable as possible.

The social contract worked well for more than a century, but it began to break down following the passage of Proposition 13 in the early 1970s.  Before the passage of Proposition 13, K-12 education in California was funded primarily from local property taxes.  Following the passage of Proposition 13, the burden for funding K-12 education shifted to state government.  Populist "reforms" in the early part of the 20th century made it extremely easy for California voters to pass both legislation and amendments to the state constitution.  With Proposition 13 on the books, the floodgates were opened for special interests to convince voters through well-financed public relations campaigns to pass a number of other constitutional amendments and initiatives that gave state legislators less and less flexibility to fashion a state budget.  Proposition 98, promoted by the state's K-12 education establishment, guaranteed the K-12 sector a fixed percentage of state revenues.  Another ballot measure required a two-thirds super majority for the state legislature to pass a budget bill or for taxes to be raised either by the Legislature or the voters.  Yet another voter-passed measure mandated life sentences for all those convicted of three felony offenses, which lead to the explosive growth of the state prison system.  But the voters neglected to provide any new source of revenue to pay for the cost of new prisons or for the additional personnel needed to staff them.  Various other initiative measures have placed further demands on state revenues.

All this "ballot-box budgeting" has left the Legislature with little flexibility when it comes time to pass a budget.  One of the few areas that is not mandated or constrained is the state's higher education budget.  As a result, the budgets for both the California State University system and the University of California system have suffered over the past decade or more, because the Legislature needed the money to fulfill mandates.  The resulting gap in support for public higher education in the state has been closed by charging students for a part of their direct educational costs at these institutions.  Those charges have increased rapidly over the past ten years.  At the same time, the Legislature has attempted to maintain the fiction that public higher education in California is "tuition-free" by calling these charges "educational fees" rather than "tuition."

Currently, undergraduate students at California State University campuses pay more than $3,000 per year out of pocket for something called the "State University Fee" and another $500 in various incidental fees, while the state contributes a bit more than $8,000 per student per year to campus operations.  By calling the $3,000 payment a State University Fee, the Legislature is able to maintain the fiction that higher education in California remains tuition free.  But in reality, the State University Fee is a charge for instruction, so it meets the dictionary definition of a tuition payment.

Until, recently this was just a matter of semantics.  But with the passage of the new GI Bill, a number of California veterans who are attending private colleges are finding that they are ineligible for tuition assistance from the federal government.  The reason is that the new GI Bill limits tuition assistance to veterans attending private colleges and universities to the highest amount charged for tuition by a public college or university in the state.  Since, no California public college or university charges tuition, the amount available under the GI Bill to California veterans attending private colleges or universities is $0, nada, nothing.

This is a case where a rose by another name doesn't smell as sweet.  Real people are losing real money because California insists on calling what is in reality tuition something else.  It's past time to be honest with ourselves.  Here in California students attending public colleges and universities are charged tuition.  It is true that the taxpayers still underwrite a majority of the costs for students in California's public colleges and universities.  But each year, as has happened for the past several years, the student contribution increases by another 10%.  So, unless there is a dramatic change in California's fortunes, it won't be long before undergraduate students are paying a majority of the direct cost of their education at a California State University campus or at a University of California campus.

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