California: Increasing Cost, Increasing Burden

Two weeks ago thousands of people, mostly organized by student and labor groups, staged walkouts and teach-ins across California to protest state budget cuts and increased fees throughout California’s education system. Called a “Day of Action for Public Education,” the event’s organizers were protesting several things. The chief complaint, however, was the November decision by the California regents to increase the cost of the university by 32 percent.

In the last 25 years average tuition across all American colleges rose by 440 percent. But at least in theory the University of California is exempt from this game. By its charter the University of California is prevented from charging tuition. And the university remains tuition-free for California residents. Schools get around this by charging “education fees.”

Despite the fact that education fee is the definition of tuition, somehow this euphemism worked for years.

It worked better, however, back in 1956. That year, for instance, the education fee at the University of California was $84. It got more expensive, a lot more expensive. In fact, between 1957 and 1970 education fees at the University of California rose 400 percent. This is obviously much greater than inflation over the same period of time. The trouble in California is not merely that the cost of tuition has risen more than inflation.

No, the more interesting thing about California is that over time the cost of education fee has encompassed more and more of California families’ income.

In 1980 the Cal education fee was $719 a year. The median family income in California that year was $21,169. That means that the education fee was a mere 3 percent of income.

During the 2010-11 school year, the education fee at the University of California will be $9,402.00 a year. That’s likely to be about 13 percent of California median family income.

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Why is this a problem? Well there’s nothing magical about 13 percent (and, indeed, it’s a little unclear what proportion of any family’s income can be spent comfortably on education) but the problem is that this number isn’t reflective of the cost of education; it reflects declining support for education. There’s no good reason why, in a state where higher education is held to be something available to all without regard for income, the cost of education relative to average income should increase at all.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer