The Current Status of Differential Fees for the University of California

Initially forecasted as an item for discussion, differential fees were introduced to the UC system as a potential resolution to mitigate the devastating budget cuts. If passed, it would raise tuition for business and engineering majors an additional $900 in comparison to their UC peers. Differential fees, targeted at upper division students in business and engineering majors, were initially on the table for the Board of Regents’ November meeting for discussion. However, this has changed – the debate on differential fees has been moved to the UC Commission on the Future to allow more time for discussion on this issue before it is voted on.

Lyman Porter, chair of the UCI Council of Planning and Budget, expressed her surprise in this course of action.

“[The change] came out of the blue. The original action was going to be put through pretty quickly,” Porter said.

Differential fees were initially proposed to the Academic Senate in early 2009.

Chair of the Assembly and Academic Council for University of California, Henry Powell, discusses its reasoning.

“When they first started talking about the fees, it was recognized that the proposal was inherently problematic. Then we were hit by an $813 million dollar cut, compounded by an additional loss of 300 million,” said Powell.

As a result, the plan to raise tuition for engineering and business majors was reintroduced. Meanwhile, the schools themselves have been dealing with their own financial dilemmas — more than $2 million dollars have been cut from UCI’s engineering department. This will become problematic because classes in these departments cost more money for UCI to offer.

Dean of the School of Engineering, Rafael Bras, explains their reasoning.

“Engineering is lab-intensive. Students need hands-on experience in design and that entails expensive machinery and the repairs, upgrades, and technicians that comes with it,” said Bras.

While the issue has been tabled, it was not removed from spotlight quickly enough to dispel controversy on UC campuses.

Porter explicates her concerns regarding the implementation of differential fees.

“Our committee was generally negative on the issue without more discussion. It could be very complicated: does business include economics majors? At some schools where computer science is a part of the engineering school, the issue of where students fall on the final bill seems even more vague and grey,” explained Porter.

Despite the defects, the complicated issue was moved quickly through the UC ranks.

Powell explains why the issue of differential fees was shifted from the Board of Regents’ agenda to the UC Commission on the Future.

“We were very concerned the proposal wasn’t receiving enough time for consideration, nor had it gone through the extensive consultative process that we like to see,” Powell said.

The money gathered, though a burden for students, would have been a light sum for the UCs. If implemented, the gross sum from differential fees would be $15 million. A third of that amount would be reserved for financial aid. Powell reveals that even with this additional $10 million, the universities will continue to look for every possible dollar.

While differential fees are used by about half of the public research universities in the country, it does not make the idea more acceptable to a UC campus.

Porter discusses one of her reasons for disapproving this idea.

“I think one concern is that student’s should be able to pick majors without consideration of cost. That’s always been the history and tradition of the UC,” Porter said.

Vishnu Sundram, first-year engineering major, cannot help but agree.

“I don’t think its fair. It’s not an obstacle for me, but [differential fees] will stop some incoming college students from picking degrees like engineering,” Sundram said.

Differential fees have been moved to the UC Commission on the Future, reducing its eminence. However, that does not necessarily mean they are gone forever.

Porter predicts the fees to return within five years while the issue itself continues to be discussed. If in the coming year or two the UC budget does not tighten up, increasing fees might be too close for comfort.