Speaking before an audience of Fresno business and education leaders, University of California President Mark Yudof made the case that the state's most prestigious public university system is still accessible to low-income students, and could become more affordable to the middle-class, despite year-over-year tuition hikes.
During the Rotary Club of Fresno luncheon on Monday, Yudof lauded the UC for preserving high-quality programs and took shots at the state Legislature for deep cuts to higher education. He debunked what he called popular myths about the UC, including the perception that low-income and disadvantaged students are excluded from its 10 campuses.
"We are reaching the poor," Yudof said. "We are reaching homes where English is not the only language spoken."
Financial aid has helped maintain access for low-income and immigrant students, even as tuition has almost doubled in the past five years. Yudof said 40% of students at most campuses are from families earning about $45,000 or less per year. More Hispanic and first-generation students are enrolling at the University of California at Merced. The campus had one of the largest populations of these students, with more than 12,000 applications for about 1,400 freshman spots for the fall, Chancellor Dorothy Leland said.
One year of tuition and fees for an undergraduate resident is $12,192. When calculating in financial aid, the average tuition is closer to $4,400.
The system has responded to budget pressures by raising tuition every year since 2001-02. The UC budget proposes no tuition increases next year, but the system's finances hinge on voters passing a new tax proposal in November.
State funding for the UC has dropped by $1 billion in the last decade; since 1990, state support per student has been cut in half.
"Our partner in Sacramento is not a very reliable partner," Yudof said.
One unexpected benefit of higher tuition is that it can actually help low-income students because it generates more financial aid money. About one-third of tuition revenue is earmarked for need-based aid.
"The people getting hurt are the middle class," Yudof said. Students who are not poor enough to qualify for much aid but struggle to pay tuition are being squeezed out of the system, he said.
The UC has supported, with amendments, a bill proposed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) that would provide students with a family income less than $150,000 a scholarship to cover about two-thirds of college fees. About 42,000 UC students would receive the Middle Class Scholarship, saving up to $8,169 per year, according to an analysis by the Assembly Democratic Caucus. Approximately 150,000 California State University students would save $4,000 each year, and the California Community Colleges would get $150 million for financial aid.
The money to fund the scholarship would come from closing a loophole that allows out-of-state corporations to choose the tax rate they owe California, according to the bill's proponents. The bill is in committee and requires two-thirds majority in the Legislature to pass.
In past years, the UC has covered the cost of tuition increases for undergraduates whose family income is between $80,000 and $120,000.
Despite UC's financial hole, Yudof said applications are up across campuses. He rebutted parts of a Sacramento Bee article published in Monday's Fresno Bee, which said more high school graduates, frustrated with rising prices and a shortage of courses, are leaving the state to attend college elsewhere. He compared the situation to people turning away from a crowded restaurant without any open tables.
"If you mean there's a rebellion against the UC, we don't see that," Yudof said in an editorial board meeting with The Bee on Monday.
More spots, however, will be taken by out-of-state students. Yudof said campuses planned to increase nonresident, undergraduate enrollment to boost revenue. The UC admitted 10,309 out-of-state students for the fall 2012 freshman class, about 3,000 more than last year. Nonresident tuition is more than $35,000 a year.
Yudof also defended recent pay hikes for executives, which have been criticized by faculty and students. He said the UC must offer competitive salaries to continue attracting qualified educators. Several campuses have blamed budget constraints for the departure of some top professors.