So, you’re raising tuition again—reluctantly, and because you feel you have no choice, but, still, you’re doing it. You raised it last year by an amount that would largely offset what the state had cut from UC’s appropriation during the financial crisis. And this year you are raising it despite the fact that the state has restored half that dollar amount, thanks largely to student protests. I’ll pass over the fact that you’re not using funds from this year’s tuition increase to restore even half of last year’s instructional cuts on UC campuses. Instead, you encourage students to believe that two thirds of their new tuition will help avoid instructional cuts that would otherwise have occurred in some imagined future. It is evident to all, however, that UC’s instructional cost (cost per credit hour) is going down so that UC can channel funds into areas where costs are almost certain to go up—for example new construction projects that are unlikely to pay for themselves or research activities that will need to be subsidized (perhaps increasingly) by enrollment-generated funds. It seems that instruction is one of the few areas where UC administrators know how to economize, and that instructional fees are the only revenue stream that UC is confident of being able to increase, perhaps indefinitely.
Why are you so sure that students will accept ever-increasing tuition even if instructional quality goes down? Well, I’ve never had the opportunity to ask you directly, but in my years of service on UC committees I’ve heard many times the usual explanation. It is, essentially, that higher education produces economic growth, which is why the state should pay for it. But economic growth also produces growing income inequality, which is why certain individual students should be expected to pay if the state does not. This theory made some sense in the late twentieth century when California’s high tech boom produced income growth only in the top 20% of the population (mostly educated), leaving 80% behind. In this context UC might reasonably expect the bottom 80% to be less willing to pay for higher education through taxes and the top 20% to be more willing to pay through increased fees. But in the twenty-first century, when almost all income growth has been in the top 1-2% of California’s population, UC is still marketing income inequality to students as its most important product: it now expects all students to pay more for an ever-shrinking chance of reaping the ever-growing rewards that our economy makes available to the few. Your plan to increase revenue through tuition growth is feasible, of course, only because the federal government still allows students to borrow more for education despite the greater likelihood that they will not be able to repay—student loans may be the last form of subprime credit available in our economy. As long as Californians regard equal educational opportunity as the same as equal access to credit, you can hope that they will borrow more for education as income inequality grows, even (and perhaps especially) in times of recession when economic opportunities are shrinking. If income inequality increases faster than the economy in good times, and also increases in bad times, it would seem that UC has a recession-proof plan for revenue growth, even though debt service on student loans can reduce post-matriculation spendable income for as long as 25 years. This cap is very recent—a reform enacted by the Obama administration, which recognized that students loans are not as easily repaid as they once were and that many higher education institutions are engaged in a form of predatory lending.