Regents Vote to Change Student Fees to Tuition

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SAN FRANCISCO - In a move that has stirred debate and raised questions about California's future financial obligations to its public universities, a joint committee of the UC Board of Regents voted Wednesday to change the name of university educational fees to tuition, acknowledging the state's declining funding for the university system.

While the wording change - which is expected to be approved by the full board today - has no impact on the university's use and level of student charges, opponents of the proposal say the change marks an abandonment of the foundational mission of a tuition-free university. The UC states the change will improve transparency by admitting that fee revenue funds a majority of the university's basic operations.

While the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education defines "tuition" as charges for teaching expenses and "educational fees" as charges for services not directly related to instruction, during the recession of the early 1990s, systemwide fees skyrocketed to compensate for reductions in state financial support, and educational fees were increasingly used to cover instructional and other related costs.

"Claiming to be a 'tuition-free' institution is no longer meaningful for the University of California," the action item for the change states. "Although financial aid has preserved the spirit of 'tuition-free' education for low-income students, all three higher education segments in California now charge California students for educational and instructional costs."

While the name change acknowledges that student fees, rather than state funding, are being increasingly used to cover instructional costs, the implications of the change are cause for debate. The UC's proposal acknowledges that the adoption of the term tuition could be seen as an abandonment of the "tuition-free university."

Kevin Woolfork, a budget policy coordinator at the California Postsecondary Education Commission, said the renaming should be considered a "practical change" rather than an abandonment of efforts to increase state funding for the UC, and should not be seen as a barrier to future state support in better economic times.

"This change is kind of a nod to reality that state support in terms of the total amount of money the UC gets has been waning," he said. "With every budget and recession, there is a hope that the state will eventually be able to move the clock back in terms of willingness to pay for higher education. Right now, the UC is sober to the reality the money just isn't there to do so."

While some have stated the name change more honestly describes the cost of a public education in California, state Assemblymember Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, said it does so at the expense of the state's higher education goal of providing affordable, quality education to eligible Californians.

"Ultimately, the state ... will need to establish a policy that specifies what part of education is a public investment in our state's prosperity and what part our students will need to pay," said Ruskin, who chaired the latest decennial review of the state's master plan, in an e-mail.

Since the educational fee was established by the regents in 1970 to cover construction and non-instructional student services costs, it has expanded to cover instructional and other university-related costs as state funding for the UC declines. While the first educational fee in 1975 was $300, it has since grown to $10,302, a number that will increase to $11,124 next year if the regents approve an 8 percent fee hike today.

The plan is an honest one, said John Vasconcellos, a retired state senator and assemblymember who chaired the first two reviews of the state's master plan. But he added that the ideal of the tuition-free California education has been "tragically lost."

"The idea of a tuition-free education is one that should be cherished, one that has been regrettably changed to reflect the current reality of our times and one that should not be entirely forsaken," he said.


Aaida Samad covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected]

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