Plan would mandate UC return-to-aid

The University of California would have to spend at least one-third of new student fees on financial aid if tuition costs are raised more than 2 percent per year, under a new proposal under review by state lawmakers. Sponsored by Rep. Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk), the bill is being heard before the state Assembly and is intended to keep education affordable for Californians, particularly for low-income students dependent on financial aid.

Source: UC Office of the President

In the current year, UC campuses have directed 20 percent of revenue resulting from the student fee increase approved by the UC Board of Regents last year to student financial-aid programs. For 2005-06, the regents have approved spending 25 percent of new fees on financial aid. The return-to-aid ratio is approximately the same at California State University.

“With almost 30 percent of California’s families having incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, tuition increases have closed the doors of access to California’s working-class students,” Bermudez stated in a press release. “It is our responsibility to keep the quality affordable and accessible by providing a university education for all qualified students.”

Janet Luna, a legislative aid to Bermudez, said that the bill was written in the interests of students.

“This is a student-protection bill,” Luna said. “It was designed to ensure students who are in need maintain their access to higher education.”

Annual decisions regarding mandatory student fees are generally based on the availability of state funds. In good fiscal years, student fees remain constant or decrease, while they generally increase during years when the state is facing a deficit.

“Students who attend college in good fiscal times pay less than those students who attend in bad fiscal times,” the Legislative Analysts’ Office stated in its annual budget report.

Critics of the bill have said that the proposed 2-percent cap on annual student-fee increases is lower than the cap approved by the universities and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in their budget compact. The compact allows undergraduate student fees at UC and CSU campuses to increase by 8 percent over the next two years. For the subsequent years, it proposes to link fee hikes to increases in California’s per-capita personal income. Opponents also argue that the most significant barrier to expanding access for low-income students is inadequate funding for state institutions, maintaining that it is the job of state and federal governments —— not the university — to provide aid.

Rep. Shirley Horton (R-Lemon Grove) was one of three legislators to vote against the bill in committee.

“[Horton] doesn’t believe California can handle these issues fiscally right now,” said Brent Young, Horton’s aid. “[The proposal] also goes against the previously established governor’s compact, which set the cap of fee increases at 10 percent.”

Horton offered a similar bill two years ago, but with a cap of 10 percent, instead of the 2-percent ceiling in the Bermudez bill.

“California schools are going through a ton of problems and the number has to be a little bit higher,” Young said. “[Horton] would vote for it if the percentage were slightly increased, but definitely nothing below 6 percent.”

Though endorsed by the California State Student Association and the California Faculty Association, which represent CSU students and professors, respectively, the bill has not received the nod from the UC Student Association.

“Although there were principles we supported and understood why it was made, it didn’t seem to cover everything it needed to,” UCSA President Jennifer Lilla said. “It doesn’t apply to all segments of students, such as professional [students]. In the end, the UCSA decided not to support the bill, although we are not necessarily actively opposing it.”

Lilla said that, while the bill now lacks UCSA endorsement, the organization is eager to see if the legislation can be amended.

“The bill is on the right track, but is not something we can support as written,” Lilla said. “However, we are in the process of trying to meet with the Bermudez office to see the motivations and intent behind it … and potentially amend the bill so we can support it.”

The A.S. Council has planned to discuss a resolution, written by interim Revelle College Senior Senator Ted McCombs, that formally expresses opposition to the bill. The resolution faults the proposal for not setting a limit on university tuition increases and for allowing college administrators to reduce the return-to-aid ratio if fee hikes are maintained below 2 percent.