College tuition may be source of conflict in next state budget

Jeff Chiu/AP

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The state's Legislative Analyst's Office is predicting a showdown this budget season between California's public universities and Governor Jerry Brown over whether the schools can both raise tuition and get a proposed state funding boost.

For several years, Brown stopped California’s public universities from raising tuition. He did so by telling university administrators that they’d get funding increases if they didn’t raise tuition.

That changed earlier this year, when administrators of the University of California and the California State University systems approved 2.5 percent tuition increases that went into effect this fall.

And if the universities consider raising tuition again, the LAO is predicting that the governor's office will use a proposed funding increase as a bargaining chip to stop them. 

“Were the university boards to raise tuition, the Legislature likely would want to consider whether all or a portion of the additional tuition revenue should augment or supplant proposed increases in state General Fund support,” the office said in a report issued last week

The governor’s office said Brown’s view on tuition increases hasn’t changed.

“What we said back in May was, going forward you should plan on 3 percent growth, number one, and number two, if you do intend to increase tuition again, you should know that state support regarding that 3 percent may have to come down,” said H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for the governor’s finance department.

But that message isn’t leading either university system to take tuition increases off the table.

“Our top priority,” said CSU spokeswoman Toni Molle in an email, “is to seek additional funding from the state. If the state is not able to provide that level of funding, we must consider all options.  A potential tuition increase could be among those options…”

Tuition increases are likely to come up in the coming months as the two university systems try to open more seats to meet growing demand and provide more student support, at the same time that Sacramento puts pressure on the universities to graduate more students.

“As part of the overall budget plan, UC will explore the possibility of a modest tuition adjustment generally pegged to cost increases in the broader economy and dependent on how much state support the university receives,” said UC spokeswoman Claire Doan in an email.

Both universities are weighing tuition increases but have not taken steps to approve hikes. It’s unclear how predictions of growing California revenue for the next fiscal year will affect the issue.

The governor’s finance office said tuition increases affect state funds because state financial aid ends up covering the added payments for many students.

Advocates for removing barriers to college entry said even small tuition increases create a perception among some high school students that they can’t afford college and many don’t apply.

“This tension around tuition is important” said Christopher Nellum, senior director of higher education research and policy at The Education Trust West. “But the ways in which students and families are paying for college today is much than just about tuition: things like housing, food, and books, and childcare. Those things should be on the table too as we think about hot to relieve this tension that keeps coming up.”

Some of those issues could be taken care of through increases in state financial aid. Nellum said he’s keeping a close eye on the issue in January when Governor Brown releases the first draft of his budget proposal for the next fiscal year.