Invested Lobbies and Budget Trauma Kill California Unit Bid

    On some Christmas morning in the not-so-distant future, a giddy California child tears the wrapping paper off her presents and squeals with delight as she finds just what she always wanted: 20 semester units at the University of California.

    At least, that’s what good little children may find in their stockings if a new bill makes it to the governor’s desk. Assembly Bill 152, the brainchild of assemblyman Jim Beall (D-San Jose), would allow Californians to buy UC units at current prices, with the ability to redeem them later at any state university. Since tuition rates are likely to climb, the reasoning goes, the ability to lock in tuition rates would be a boon for working-class families trying to plan for the future of their children.

    Unfortunately, the bill comes with a slew of complications. It would compel the state to pick up the difference between the original price of the units and the fee rates when the units are redeemed. Investment returns are meant to defer most of this cost, but even in low-risk investments the market can be unpredictable and may not be able to cover the difference if fee increases outpace returns.

    Another issue with AB 152 is that it furthers complicate the political equation that determines state funding for higher education. Both the state Legislature and the UC Board of Regents would have to reckon with a new lobby with a direct financial interest in fee levels. Such complications would likely distort the true cost of education, hurting those students who are unable to purchase units in advance.

    While AB 152 is an interesting idea, California families would be better served by a focus on keeping higher education affordable in the first place: developing a predictable fee schedule, encouraging private donations and providing scholarships to the neediest students.

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