Average annual cost to attend a UC, adjusted for inflation.
Yesterday, a committee of the Board of Regents of the University of California voted to increase student tuition fees by five percent annually over the next five years. The 7-to-2 vote was not popular with students—several hundred of whom protested the decision—or the state's top two elected officials who double as regents, Governor Jerry Brown and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. One 21 year-old Cal student was arrested on two counts of felony vandalism and inciting a riot after students surged through a police line and broke a large glass door at the UCSF Mission Bay campus.
The violence may have been extreme, but the outrage was justified. That's because the 25 percent increase over the next five years follows a trendline that has been ongoing more than a decade. Check out the data we’ve compiled from the University of California above. That graph displays the inflation-adjusted average of UC tuition, not counting books or housing. As you can see, the numbers increase slowly from 1975 to 2002—and then they shoot up, and keep shooting up. It’s like those hockey stick growth charts that Silicon Valley types salivate over—except enequivocally bad for everyone involved, and not just the students and their families who've had to pay for the increases..
So what gives? It’s tempting to blame UC President Janet Napolitano and the current Board of Regents for raising the fees—but the increases started long before Napolitano came to California, and are likely to continue long after she’s gone. It is a structural problem. And that's where Brown, who sets the state's economic agenda, should be scrutinized.
Essentially, there are two big pools of money that can fund the public higher education system: Student tuition and general taxpayer dollars. As the second dries up, the first has to increase. In 2002, the state funded the UC system $3.4 billion, roughly the same as what it spend in 2001. By 2014, the state funded the UC only $2.9 billion. In part, the state had to deal with the effects of a recession. But also, it had to deal with self-inflicted constraints on raising taxes (hello, Prop 13) and one of the easiest places to cut is higher education. (K-12 spending, for example, is put on autopilot thanks to voter initiatives.) That $500 million has to be made up somewhere, and there's only so much that the UC can—or should—shave from its spending. In essence, over good and bad budget years, and both Democratic and Republican governors, the state of California has made up ground in its budget by slowly defunding the UC system.
But it isn’t just the state that’s at fault. You have to layer in structural cuts made by the UC that haven’t helped the budget situation. The more damaging was structuring retirement rules such that workers didn’t have to pay in anything from 1990 to 2010. The resulting pension liability weighs heavily on the budget. The other problem—more cosmetic than existential—is the pay increases its approved for senior administrators, like a 20 percent pay boost to the leaders of the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Merced and Riverside campuses. According to the LA Times, Napolitano now makes $570,000 a year. Jerry Brown only takes home $177,466.
The sad takeaway from yesterday's events? A trend that’s been around this long won’t end soon.