Taxes and Tuition

It is evident that many students view the UCI Regents and Administration as the source of the current problems. The situation, however, is much more complex.

Let me first describe my own reaction to the current situation. I come from what was once called a blue-collar family, of modest means. In my era the cost of a UC education was almost zero. Thus, I could attend UC Berkeley, and receive the finest education anywhere for nearly nothing. I worked only in summer, and thus devoted full time to studies during the academic year. This was an era when UC was admired by almost everyone, and when most citizens had respect for their government. They saw government as a provider of essential services, education among these, and they stepped forward to pay the taxes required for the delivery of such services. I have had a marvelous career, thanks to the availability of the best education on the world scale at very modest cost. I find it very painful to see the economic stress our current students face. The new fee structures will close the door on people with my background.

It is the case that the current problems of UC are a consequence of a 180-degree turnaround in how our public views their government. Presently a very large fraction of the public wants government out of its lives, and the payment of even modest taxes is resented. For three decades now, there has been great enthusiasm for anti-tax politicians whose wish is to shrink the government. In California, quite strangely, propositions are passed each election that burden the State with new expenditures or debt, with no income source provided. I am puzzled by the disconnect in our state between support for the anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric and the fiscal burdens imposed by the propositions. Look at the growth of our prisons, a direct consequence of the “three strikes law,” a law that provided no income source for new prison construction and operation. The combination of anti-government politicians and the new propositions places the UC system in an unsustainable position.

I am certain that the parents and grandparents of a large fraction of our undergraduates vote for anti-tax politicians and cheer when they are elected. I have spoken to many and this is what I often hear. In smaller classes that I have taught recently, I find myself acquainted with quite a few of the students by quarter’s end. In casual conversations, I often hear negative commentary on the level of taxation in the US, which in fact is the lowest of any developed country so far as I know. In my anecdotal experience, a significant fraction of our students are also sympathetic with the anti-tax sentiment so evident in our current political landscape.

You can’t have it both ways. If you or your parents have supported politicians whose primary position is to reduce taxes and government, then you should expect to pay a substantial fraction of the cost of an education at a state institution. This means large increases in tuition as State revenues shrink. The Los Angeles Times has reported that when the state budget is corrected for inflation and population growth, the budget has decreased 16.6 percent in the last decade on a per capita basis. In such a circumstance, it is impossible to support a large, high quality higher education system without substantial tuition increases.

The only way to turn the situation around is to change public attitudes in regard to taxation and the role of government, to the point where it is expressed in our political leadership. The current problems do not have their origin in the Regents and the small number of UC administrators who represent us to the State, but rather are the consequence of the widely held views just described. We live in a democracy, and the people have spoken clearly. We now see the consequence of these views. If we value the UC system, and regard it (as I do) a matter of great importance that our State continue to provide the highest quality education at a fraction of the cost of private institutions, then we must all work to change the attitudes of the general public. This is not a task just for the UC administrators and Regents, but it is something we all need to do. This is, of course, a tall order, but we must start now. Alas, at this point we have little time to accomplish this task if we wish the UC system to remain the accessible and affordable crown jewel of public education.

D. L. Mills is a research professor of physics. He can be reached at