NORTHRIDGE, CALIF. — CALIFORNIA'S public universities - once the envy of the academic world for their affordability and excellence - are raising fees at a rate that has students studying their bank accounts as much as Boyle's law.
The tuition hikes are triggering a fundamental debate echoed throughout the country over what the role of the state should be in financing higher education.
University administrators, pinched by drops in state aid, throw up their hands and say they have no choice but to institute a double-digit fee increase. But critics charge that the hikes may deprive thousands of getting a college education. Parents, meanwhile, are being forced to do new kitchen-table calculus. And those who will be sitting in the more expensive classes have to live with the consequences.
Under a robin's egg-blue sky, sophomore Aura Orantes pauses after a day at California State University, Northridge. Unless her financial aid goes up, the Chicano studies major says she may have to drop out next year. She already lives at home and rides the bus 90 minutes to school to save money.
"I may have to quit and find a job," she says. "It is getting too expensive."
The sticker shock on California campuses mirrors what has been going on at colleges nationwide. Faced with rising costs and declining state funding - the biggest single source of public university finance - many schools have been firing faculty, eliminating classes, capping enrollments, and raising tuition.
Nor have private colleges, no matter how hefty their endowments, been exempt. Ivy-clad Yale University recently did what other college administrators have avoided like dental work: It became the first to announce that tuition, fees, room and board for one year will top $25,000, starting this fall.
Cutting outlays for higher education is a tempting target for lawmakers trying to close budget gaps. Funding levels for many other state programs are mandated by law. Not higher education. In these lean times, moreover, many politicians believe more of the cost of public college education should be shifted from the state - and thus the taxpayers - to students and their parents.
With the economy showing signs of improvement, though, the pressure on colleges and their politician-patrons may be easing. A new survey by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities shows that 18 states this year plan to cut back funding for higher education - down from 27 at this time last year.
"It looks like things may be getting better, but they haven't recovered yet," says Robert Sweeney, a policy analyst with the group.
Certainly, they haven't recovered in California. In his latest budget proposal, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) is calling for another round of cuts in state support for two of California's university systems: a $67.7 million reduction (4.5 percent) for the California State system and a $138 million reduction (7.3 percent) for the University of California.
The results of the penury became painfully evident last week. On Friday, the University of California Board of Regents decided to boost student fees this fall by 33 percent, or $995. The average cost of a state resident to attend one of the system's nine campuses, not including room and board, will rise to $4,039 - a 150 percent jump in four years.
Two days earlier Cal State trustees voted to raise fees 37 percent this fall. The increase is part of a dramatic new plan to tie future increases in the 20-campus system to the actual cost of education - a move that could lead to a doubling of student fees over the next three years.
The Cal State plan requires approval by the state Legislature, though, and the fee increases in both systems are drawing pointed comments. Critics argue that higher charges violate the state's deep-rooted tradition of opening academic doors to all who are qualified.
"This is an outrageous closing of the door of higher education in California," says state Sen. Tom Hayden (D) of Santa Monica. "The burden has shifted to the students."
Students echo these sentiments. For Cal State Northridge junior Aida Hagopian, a book bag slung over her shoulder, bigger tuition bills will probably mean phoning home for help. "My parents would probably help me out if I asked," says the working student. "But we're not able to get enough of the classes we want now. I'm not sure it's worth it."