Faced with record high enrollment and the need to hire faculty, the University of California and California State University systems are considering raising tuition for the first time in six years.
The proposed annual hikes — $270 at the 23 Cal State schools and $280 at UC's 10 campuses — are being discussed this week by the governing boards of both systems at separate meetings on budget plans.
Leaders of both institutions say they need more funding to maintain the quality of the nation's largest public university system.
Rates have remained frozen despite declining state support, officials said. The current in-state undergraduate tuition at Cal State schools is $5,400 a year and $12,300 a year at UCs.
About two dozen students protested Tuesday outside the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach.
They placed fake tombstones on the lawn outside the meeting, wore zombie face paint and held signs saying, "We are the Walking Debt" to symbolize the "dying CSU system" that used to be free and fully state-funded, said Courtney Yamagiwa, a member of activist group Students for Quality Education.
Yamagiwa, a senior at California State University, Long Beach, urged the board to push for more state funding.
The proposed hikes could take effect for the 2017-18 school year unless the state provides more funding.
"Tuition increase is a decision of last resort," said Toni Molle, spokeswoman for California State University. "The university's highest priority is to secure full state funding."
CSU's Board of Trustees is asking for an additional $168 million in state funding, Molle said.
A vote on possible CSU tuition hikes would not happen until next year. Officials say that if it takes effect, the majority of students would likely have the costs covered by financial aid.
At Cal State schools, 61 percent of students are fully covered by financial aid, Molle said.
At the University of California, 57 percent of California undergraduate students are fully covered, said spokeswoman Claire Doan. State spending has dropped from covering 72 percent of the cost of educating a student in 2000 to 41 percent last year, she said.
The UC Board of Regents meets Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the 2017-18 budget, with details to be finalized in January.
Both institutions say they're faced with record numbers of California high school graduates qualifying for admission and the added challenges of finding dorms, classrooms and instructors.
Critics say the tuition proposals would put too much of a burden on students already struggling to finance their educations and force more students to drop out of college.