Differential Tuition on the Horizon? Experts Say No Way

Gov. Brown’s looming budget revisions and the cuts expected as a consequence have caused desperate University of California Regents, faculty and staff to put every option to save the University — no matter how outlandish or drastic — on the table.

One of those options, proposed in November 2010’s UC Commission on the Future, concerned charging differential tuition on a campus-by-campus basis. This would mean that a student attending UC Berkeley might shell out $15,000 while his or her cousin at UC Davis might pay $11,000 per year. The Commission’s report argues that varying tuition will “protect against losses of student enrollments at campuses beginning to experience demand elasticity,” and will expand the UC’s total revenue, allowing the money to be distributed for the benefit of all campuses.

The Commission, however, recognized the challenges in implementing such a system, citing “controversy over perceived or actual tiering of campuses for tuition-setting purposes,, potential negative impact on the perceived reputation or academic quality of some campuses and the complexities and potential controversy in developing a distribution model that benefits all campuses,” and ultimately decided not to endorse this recommendation.

After the Commission urged the UC to seek alternate avenues for extra funds, the topic did not again see the light of day until May 9, when the Los Angeles Times published an article by Larry Gordon titled, “University of California weighs varying tuitions at its 10 campuses.”

In the article, Gordon and University officials discuss the merits and drawbacks associated with the tactic of differential tuitions, touching on the large sum of money that would come from this change, and grapple with the overarching difficulty of coming up with a base tuition for each school. The article incited a swift and intense response from both the University community and the general public.

UCI film studies professor and past chairman of the University Committee on Planning and Budget Peter Krapp was disappointed by the article and wanted to set the record straight. He did so by writing an op-ed in the LA Times’ “Blowback” section two days later, titled “Charging varying tuition would threaten UC’s character.”

“I wanted to chime in because we’ve been talking about it for a long time,” Krapp said. “This is a topic that has come up every year, especially when budgets are cut, but was never taken as a first choice.”

Member of the UCOP Strategic Communications Office Ricardo Vazquez also maintains that this proposal is not a fresh one.

“There is really nothing going on with this,” he said. “It was discussed in the context of dwindling state support, but at this point there has been no formal proposal or anything.”

Vazquez also commented on the fact that the article might have misled some people — a notion that professor Krapp agrees with wholeheartedly.

“[Regents] pay a lot of attention to public opinion and not really to University voices,” Krapp said. “If there’s a big article in the LA Times about varying tuitions, they might look at that and say, ‘Huh. That’s a good idea!’… but something like this will be bad not just for individual campuses, but for everyone. It will backfire.”

Krapp went on to state that there is no justification for applying different fees to different campuses, even when looking at the situation in terms of cost. He maintained that UC officials should not restrict access to the University, and added that such a policy would be at odds with the University’s purpose and mission.

“Does it cost more to teach a UCLA student than a UCSD student?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”

Current ASUCI Executive Vice President Andres Gonzalez echoed these thoughts, characterizing the proposed policy of differential tuition as harmful to the California Master Plan for Higher Education. Gonzalez stated that a tuition-by-campus system would be another step toward a more privatized university system rather than the public education that the UC was created to be. He added that if this policy were to be implemented, UC students would pay significantly more into their education than California would contribute in funding, adding further to the current problem.

“It sets wide discrepancies on the type of education you would receive at a specific campus over another,” Gonzalez said. “This is the first year that the students of the University are actually contributing more to the UC through tuition than the state general funds. This shift [in policy] would open doors that have potential for egregious tuition hikes. If this were to happen at UC Irvine we might not see drastic changes for the first few years. But it is hard to say what the approach would be by UC Irvine in the long run if this is to be implemented.”

Student Regent-Designate and Health Policy Graduate student Alfredo Mireles said he is personally opposed to differential fees, especially if they don’t have added financial aid for low and middle-income students.

“This is a bigger problem,” Mireles said. “The government has already decided to cut severely, and we could lose over one third of our state income. These are catastrophic times, so every option — controversial as they might be — must be discussed.”

A meeting was scheduled for Monday, May 15 for further discussion on the budget.