College Guide


March 16, 2010 11:00 AM California: Increasing Cost, Increasing Burden

By Daniel Luzer

Two weeks ago thousands of people, mostly organized by student and labor groups, staged walkouts and teach-ins across California to protest state budget cuts and increased fees throughout California’s education system. Called a “Day of Action for Public Education,” the event’s organizers were protesting several things. The chief complaint, however, was the November decision by the California regents to increase the cost of the university by 32 percent.

In the last 25 years average tuition across all American colleges rose by 440 percent. But at least in theory the University of California is exempt from this game. By its charter the University of California is prevented from charging tuition. And the university remains tuition-free for California residents. Schools get around this by charging “education fees.”

Despite the fact that education fee is the definition of tuition, somehow this euphemism worked for years.

It worked better, however, back in 1956. That year, for instance, the education fee at the University of California was $84. It got more expensive, a lot more expensive. In fact, between 1957 and 1970 education fees at the University of California rose 400 percent. This is obviously much greater than inflation over the same period of time. The trouble in California is not merely that the cost of tuition has risen more than inflation.

No, the more interesting thing about California is that over time the cost of education fee has encompassed more and more of California families’ income.

In 1980 the Cal education fee was $719 a year. The median family income in California that year was $21,169. That means that the education fee was a mere 3 percent of income.

During the 2010-11 school year, the education fee at the University of California will be $9,402.00 a year. That’s likely to be about 13 percent of California median family income.


Why is this a problem? Well there’s nothing magical about 13 percent (and, indeed, it’s a little unclear what proportion of any family’s income can be spent comfortably on education) but the problem is that this number isn’t reflective of the cost of education; it reflects declining support for education. There’s no good reason why, in a state where higher education is held to be something available to all without regard for income, the cost of education relative to average income should increase at all.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • CalKate on March 16, 2010 11:24 PM:

    So here is the kicker. In their quest for revenues, the UCs are admitting more out of state students. California families have paid taxes all of a child's life, but out of state students pay more.

    Basically, a UC education is means-tested. Lower income students get aid - if their families are savvy enough to understand how to get it, and that is a big if. But upper income students would probably be happy to pay full private school tuition, but can't, and instead lose those spots to out of state kids. California is not like Massachusetts - there are not many private alternatives. I'd love to see the UCs quit the charade and simply charge market rate, then offer aid - all with the caveat that any California student (whose parents pay taxes here) at any income level gets preference over a similar out of state student.

    But you write as if Cal were the only option. Do not forget that California has an outstanding community college and state university system as well. Costs are far lower than the UCs, though rising.

  • JM on March 17, 2010 7:51 AM:

    Looks very similar to SUNY tuition rates. Not sure how you could do it much cheaper. Cheaper then many other State U's.

  • californiacollegesearch on November 05, 2010 1:51 PM:

    The rising costs of education will only keep people from getting the education they need to help them advance their career. We have to make sure that these "education fees" do not take up so much of a families income that their kids can't go to school.