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Blowback: Charging varying tuition would threaten UC's character

May 11, 2011 |  6:00 am

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UC Irvine film studies professor Peter Krapp, the immediate past chairman of the UC system Academic Senate's University Committee on Planning and Budget, responds to The Times' May 9 article, "University of California weighs varying tuitions at its 10 campuses."

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Proposing different tuition for each University of California campus is shortsighted and ill-considered. The UC Commission on the Future considered the possibility and its potential consequences in 2010 and decided that it was an unwise course of action for a state the size of California. Both population demand and economic proportion make comparisons with Wisconsin, Michigan or Virginia meaningless. The higher education systems of Texas and New York state have histories different than California's. Plus, The Times' article only briefly mentions the role of the California State University system.

Stratification would fundamentally change the UC system. Each campus would need separate Academic Personnel Manuals and different salary scales. Students who attend the most diverse campuses would have the least spent on their education. At the 25th David Dodds Henry Lecture at the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2005, former UC President David P. Gardner explicitly emphasized the "steady and diligent commitment to the concept of UC as a single university operating on 10 campuses," including "a single set of personnel policies, salary schedules and policies" -- all crucial contributing factors to UC's rise to eminence.

Varying fees would cause campus reputations to suffer, making it more difficult for them to recruit excellent faculty, staff and students so as to maintain quality for the benefit of California. Prospective students and employees would infer that less is spent on instruction per student at certain campuses. The proposal will alienate alumni, pit legislative districts against each other and play students at different campuses against one another. Moreover, UC Berkeley is good, but in agriculture it's no UC Davis; UC San Diego is good, but in the humanities it's no UC Irvine; and UCLA is good, but does it have three Nobel laureates in physics? No, but UC Santa Barbara does.

Who would tell alumni that their degrees are being devalued? Who would inform parents that their kids are getting less for their money at one campus or another? As former UC President Robert C. Dynes put it in his "UC 'Promise & Power of 10' Campus Visits Final Report," the university's quality has come under siege from two fronts: growing competition for faculty, students and staff from peer institutions, particularly private universities with large endowments; and a counterproductive temptation to stratify the campuses (and the regions they serve) into "haves" and "have-nots."

Consider England, where tuition levels are capped by state policy. When the cap was recently lifted from 3,000 pounds to a maximum of 9,000 pounds per year, practically all universities went for the highest amount, not just the most selective research institutions. It is reasonable to expect that every UC campus would likewise match the highest "differential" all the way. Requiring a campus to charge lower tuition than it wants to or could (nearly all of the campuses are overenrolled) certainly amounts to leaving money on the table. It is highly unlikely that any UC campus would choose to charge lower fees than other UC campuses to "attract more students," since all campuses see more qualified applicants than they can accommodate. The popularity of older campuses is not a good enough reason to make them less affordable and less accessible to Californians.

Each UC campus stimulates the local economy and prepares the state population for the 21st century. UCLA must not force UC Riverside to serve more disadvantaged students while charging less; and UC Berkeley should not accept only the wealthy while expecting UC Santa Cruz or UC Davis to accept more needy students. None of the UC campuses has an endowment that could take on the burden that had been carried, under the Master Plan for Higher Education, by the state. Moreover, expensive private colleges and universities are not differentiated much by price but rather by yield; that is, institutions that are somewhat less selective will not compete on price but make a greater effort to recruit and fill their incoming classes.

And what happens to public support for a UC campus that becomes as expensive as USC or Stanford? Proposing differential tuition undercuts UC's case for public funding and indeed threatens its very character as a public institution. This inevitable backlash should be obvious to shortsighted advocates of UC stratification.

-- Peter Krapp

RELATED:

Ted Rall cartoon: UC education a la carte

University of California weighs varying tuitions at its 10 campuses

More non-Californians are offered freshman slots at UC schools

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block: The Legislature's Master Plan turncoats

Editorial: President Mark Yudof's five-year plan for UC

Photo: Royce Hall at UCLA, where students might pay higher tuition than at some other UC campuses under a place being weighed by university system's Board of Regents. Credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

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