San Francisco Chronicle: To avoid UC tuition hikes, Legislature should look at SB15

Thursday, December 04, 2014

A new twist in the long-running saga of UC tuition emerged this week, as the state Senate unveiled a plan to increase higher education funding.

The proposal, SB15, is generous — it would cost between $342 million and $434 million through 2018. By providing enough money to eliminate the need for tuition hikes, funding more Cal Grant scholarships, and funding more spots for students at both UC and CSU, SB15 is an answer to many of the state’s long-running concerns about the high cost and low capacity in higher education. But there is, as always, a catch.

Much of the bill would be paid for by eliminating the scholarship for middle-class students, which was scheduled to begin this fall. The program, which was only available for California residents, is meant to pay up to 40 percent of tuition for students whose families earn up to $150,000 a year.

SB15 would also raise tuition on nonresident students by a whopping 17 percent, or $4,000 more per student per year.

SB15 proponents argue that phasing out the middle-class scholarship will enable the Legislature to offer more benefits to all California students. They’re right.

While a middle-class scholarship program is good politics and helpful to a segment of the student population, the Legislature needs to use its leadership capacity for the good of all students.

The good news is that many of the issues addressed by SB15 — such as increasing institutional capacity, avoiding tuition hikes, and offering completion-incentive grants for CSU students who finish their coursework in four years — would make a degree more affordable for middle-class students. 

These are strategies that address affordability indirectly, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. 

And lower-income students — a group that has found itself increasingly shut out of California’s higher education system — would be greatly helped by the increased funding for student support services in SB15. 

The UC and CSU leadership has responded to SB15 with cautious encouragement, but this is only the first step in what’s sure to be a long and highly politicized battle.

The state Assembly may not be willing to phase out the middle-class scholarships.

Gov. Jerry Brown thinks that higher education should cut costs rather than increase tuition. SB15 also increases higher education funding more than Brown’s plan would. 

Even if the Legislature passes SB15 (an outcome that’s not guaranteed), his concerns will have to be addressed as part of any budget negotiation. It’s going to be a long and thorny road. 

We urge the Legislature to take a good look at SB15, while acknowledging that the governor, the Legislature, and UC and CSU officials are all going to need room for compromise over the next several months.