Dear University of California: Hike away!

You’ll hate me for this, but…

The University of California should, in fact, raise undergraduate tuition.

The University of California is recognized as the top public university system in the world.  Cal, UCLA, UCSD, UCSB, and UC Davis are all world leaders in their respective specialties (UCSB has a great marine bio department, and Davis for agricultural science), and Riverside, Irvine, Santa Cruz, and Merced all have more stringent admissions standards than the vast majority of American colleges and universities.  If you care about this sort of thing, in US News and Reports’s 2010 Public University rankings, the UC takes the first, second, seventh, TWO eleventh (Davis and UCSB tie), fourteenth, twenty-ninth, forth-third spots.  To be  clear: 1, 2, 7, 11, 11, 14, 29, 43.  (Only Merced isn’t on the list, but considering it only opened a couple of years ago, I’m not terribly offended.)

Again, using those silly rankings, if you want to compare the UCs to all universities, public and private, Cal ranks 21st, UCLA 24th, UCSD 35th, Davis and UCSB 42nd, Irvine 46th, UCSC 71st, and Riverside 96th.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I find those rankings fairly useless when it comes to marking actual institutional and educational quality, but maybe that’s just because my alma mater’s knocked all the way down to #35, after U$C, which all righteous Northern Californians despise.)

Each year, the most competitive UCs maintain ridiculously low admission rates, both because they’re great institutions and because its tuition really is far below market rates.  The University of California has thousands of students whose families can afford its full tuition.  Some of these students choose the UC because it’s a bargain; others, because these schools really are their first choice.

California has two public university systems — the UC and the CSU — and, unfortunately, most of the poor who do make it to a four-year college will go to a CSU, not to a UC.  The UCs’ student composition is dominated by the upper- and upper-middle-class.  While a huge chunk of its students receive financial aid, at least a third of the UC’s students absolutely do not need it.

This year, the average UC tuition was $8720; next year, it will go up $1334, to $10,054.  While this is a big jump, percentage-wise, I’d advocate raising tuition to at least $20,000.  Yes, that makes you grumpy, but consider other, mostly crappier, California universities:

2009-2010 Tuition at very- to semi-competitive private California Universities/Colleges (JUST classes — this doesn’t count housing, food, student fees, textbooks, etc.)

U$C: $38,570
Stanford: $37,380
University of San Diego (Catholic): $35,870
Loyola Marymount University (Catholic): $34,730
Santa Clara University (Catholic): $36,000
Pepperdine University (Christian): $34,580
CalTech: $31,437

UC tuition is far below market rates, and California taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the cost of higher education for tens of thousands of students and families who DO NOT NEED THE SUBSIDY.  We could raise tuition at least another $10,000, and maybe even $15,000 or $20,000, before strong students would seriously consider attending LMU or Pepperdine over UCLA or UCSB.

The UC should increase its tuition to at least $20,000.  These increases could help fund university necessities like attracting top faculty and research.  It also would keep the UC a comparative bargain, about $15,000 less than most of the universities described above.

As a student who was only able to attend UCSD on financial aid, I understand those who cry that fee hikes penalize the poor.  That said, I personally can testify to the University of California’s generosity.  Thanks to need-based grants, loans, and scholarships, my out-of-pocket cost was between $0 and $3000 each year.  Raising tuition wouldn’t penalize us scholarship students; instead, it would allow for even more money to be diverted to financial aid (hopefully in the form of UC grants, not federal loans).

Another potential perk: too many rich frat boys (boys especially, but some women, too) go all Van Wilder and spend too much time in school, not because they couldn’t get into their classes, but because they don’t feel like sucking it up and graduating.  Raising the tuition would incentivize these students (or at least their parents) into graduating sooner, which would waste less of the state’s money, free up seats for those who need the classes (especially because these super-super seniors get to pick classes first, based on their advanced unit standing), and, again, if you care about these things, help the UC in the rankings when it comes to “average time to completion.”

(One caveat: I strongly advocate not raising graduate student fees by anywhere near a similar margin.  Attracting great grad students and faculty is absolutely essential for maintaining our top research programs, which, by extension, lift up the undergraduate programs.  Besides, they make up such a small chunk of the student population, a significant fee hike would only discourage them from coming to California while having a negligible impact on our coffers.)

In conclusion, the UC tuition is far below market rates.  This artificially low tuition benefits the upper-middle and upper classes much more than it does the middle and working classes, since a) the latter has a hard time getting into the UC anyway and b) we could raise tuition by at least $10k and still be significantly less expensive than crappier California universities.  The UC should take a stand by dramatically increasing student fees, and should NOT apologize for it.

Raising fees to $20,000 would ensure better faculty salaries, which will attract better research and graduate students.  Furthermore, it would help us move to a Harvard-esque model of helping the poorest get a greater percentage of aid in the form of grants, instead of loans.  It’s a win-freaking-win.

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5 thoughts on “Dear University of California: Hike away!

  1. Thanks, Josh! I feel so much smarter now that it seems someone actually agrees with me. I thought posting this would make the world knee-jerk yell at me. Yay for my local econ head!

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