Look for Alternatives to Tuition Hikes

Tuition at the University of California could be going up again. At the system’s recent Board of Regents meeting, reported the Contra Costa Times, “Administrators presented four budget scenarios … to help the Board of Regents plan future budgets. Under the rosiest scenario – which is unlikely, given the state’s financial crisis – UC would raise tuition 8 percent per year, starting in 2012.” UC President Mark G. Yudof threatened last month that, if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increases weren’t passed, tuition could increase by 32 percent.

Already, tuition for undergraduates jumped 8 percent in November, to $11,124. The previous year, tuition went up by 32 percent.

But before the 10-campus UC system bumps up tuition yet again, it should look to alternatives, especially cost-cutting, Vicki Murray told us; she’s an education studies senior policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. She pointed out that most avenues for knowledge are decreasing in costs. Computers, the Internet, online books and online encyclopedias, all have rapidly become less expensive, and in some cases are free.

Most of the Great Books of the Western World now are free online. Foreign language and other study sources also abound. Free online lectures are numerous. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put almost its entire curriculum online for free.

Ms. Murray said that universities, including the UC system, could save money by foregoing “big buildings, large sports facilities and dormitories” in favor of more online learning. Although small-group teaching still is valuable, impersonal lecture classes with hundreds of students in large auditoriums could be more cheaply conducted online.

She pointed to her study, available online, “10 Questions State Legislators Should Ask About Higher Education,” which includes many suggestions to save money while providing a better education.

Then there are the immense costs of professors’ pay and pensions. Ms. Murray noted that being a tenured university professor is one of the few jobs where you do less even as your time on the job increases, and your pay rises.

Coaches of major intercollegiate sports can make seven figures, but regular professors also can do very well. For example, Timothy H. McCalmont, professor of clinical dermatology and dermatology at UC San Francisco, made $2.1 million that year.

Then there are the pensions, which seem underfunded everywhere in California government. As the Oakland Tribune reported in November, the UC “pension plan is underfunded by at least $6.3 billion because neither the university nor its employees made payments into the system for two decades – while, at the same time, sweetening benefits.”

Of course, the best solution for this problem would be to start privatizing parts of the UC and other state school systems. Why shouldn’t they work like Chapman, Stanford, USC and other private universities, with the taxpayers off the hook and the poor given ample scholarships?

In the meantime, it’s obvious that, instead of imposing tuition increases that especially hit middle-class students, the UC Regents and the California Legislature should look at ways to slim down bloated university budgets, salaries and pensions, and look to innovative new ways of teaching.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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