Friday, August 5, 2011




For at least the last 10 years, it has been commonplace for students at the many campuses of both the University of California and the California State University to take as much as six years to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Now those timetables are likely to be extended by at least a year or two at the same time as both systems have raised their tuition enormously.

Yes, prices at both the UC and CSU systems are well within the normal range for public universities around the nation. But no, it is not normal in most places for the most basic classes required for many degrees to fill up well before most students have a chance to enroll in them.

Yet that has been commonplace on California campuses for years. Now comes the added price burden of tuition increases at both major systems which amounted to about 10 percent when initially enacted last spring. Both systems then followed those increases this summer with hikes of an additional 12 percent.

The percentage calculations, of course, used latest tuition levels as their base number, meaning that the real increase is more like 25 percent than the 22 or 23 percent that’s usually bandied about.

At both UC and CSU, scholarships are still available to the neediest students, although neither offers anything like the guarantee Stanford University instituted about a year ago. These days on The Farm, if you’re admitted at all (admissions there are “need-blind,” with admissions officers kept unaware of the finances of applicants they consider), Stanford will see to it that you get enough scholarship money or work-study opportunities to be able to attend.

That guarantee also protects middle-class students, who often fall through the cracks in the public universities, which increasingly appear to cater to the rich or the poor, to the exclusion of the middle class.

The latest tuition increases are one example. While incomes have largely stagnated around America and in California for the last decade, CSU now costs about twice what it did just four years ago, in 2007.

Sure, the CSU increase represents “only” about $2,500 per year, but the increase comes to more than $10,000 over four years. That’s enough to put college out of reach for many of the students the CSU system was designed to educate.

Some Californians are being replaced on campus by out-of-state students, including a large number of foreigners whose governments pay their way, like those from places like China and Saudi Arabia, which educate many of their young people abroad because their own universities don’t measure up in various ways.

Where will this leave public schools when they need to recruit new teachers, the bulk of whom were trained at CSU schools for the last 50 years? Will this force even companies that want to hire Americans either to import workers or move jobs overseas?

These are only some of the long-term questions accentuated by the latest state budget, which cut $150 million each from the UC and CSU systems, in effect forcing their respective boards to double the previous tuition increases.

The true question here is one of access: Will Californians be priced off the campuses their parents’ and grandparents’ tax dollars created and maintained?

Stanford’s President John Hennessy frets that this might already be happening. “Especially worrying is the combined effect of slowly rising incomes with stable family size,” he wrote this summer. “In the past, incomes were rising and family size was shrinking, with the result that families had more disposable income per child for college costs. But income stagnation combined with rising tuition has put more stress on families.

“These trends have been exacerbated by reductions in state funding to public (universities), leading to tuition increases that are sometimes three to five times the growth in wages…we risk making higher education inaccessible to a growing percentage of Americans.”

That’s especially true of middle-class kids. Here’s how college scholarship eligibility worked for one family: The parents owned a one-half interest in a rental home for the first three years of its son’s college education. While the value of a family’s primary residence is not counted as a financial resource in most eligibility calculations, rentals are, so this student received no scholarship his first three years. But during the third year, the family sold off its interest in the rental and used the money to pay off the mortgage on its primary home. The family’s net work did not change, but in his fourth year, the student got a $10,000 scholarship.

This makes no sense, but it’s an example of what middle class parents face all the time, as they watch opportunities recede away from their children.

It’s a problem California must stop, and soon, or watch this state’s universities become available only to the rich, the very poor or foreign students whose education won’t much help the future of California or the nation.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit


  1. Take a look at the California State University – Statistical Abstract – 2008-2009, Table 166: Ethnicity and Gender of Total CSU Employees by Occupational Group. In the 1975-1976 through 2008-2009 period, total employment in the Managerial and Professional category went up by 8,383 (221%). If the numbers of these higher-paid employees had been held to around the level of student growth (54%) in that period, tuition wouldn't have to increase as much and/or more classes could be offered to get students out faster.

  2. Undergrad student fees did not increase for 7 consecutive years during the 1990's when the State then had more than one budget crisis. They also lowered fees 10% in 2001-2002 for undergrads. Student fees were significantly lower than those of comparable public institutions across the country prior to 2003-2004. Other than raising student fees during the recent financial crisis, how else can UC and CSU provide financial aid, of which no less than 20% of the fee increases is used to provide financial aid to needy students?