Blog: The Educated Reporter

Tuition Increase or Enrollment Cuts: A False Dichotomy

California State University, the nation’s largest public university system, is freezing enrollment for next spring as it responds to budget cuts from Sacramento and will warn prospective fall 2012-13 students their enrollment is predicated on new state revenue.

In what the Los Angeles Times calls a high-stakes gambit to pressure voters to enshrine a series of tax increases on the ballot this November, Cal State officials did what many education experts view is a tough decision to an intractable budget situation. The other option is to raise prices for students yet again, something that has caused uproar following six consecutive years of tuition increases (and a 10 percent raise for several university presidents). The San Francisco Chronicle quoted CSU budget czar Robert Turnage in saying CSU’s board of trustees has little enthusiasm to raise the price again. 2012-13 tuition at Cal State schools is set to $5,970 annually, more than double the $2,772 it cost to attend in 2007-08. In addition to tuition, CSU campuses issue additional mandatory fees of about $1,047–the average of what the individual campuses will charge next school year. 

The university system has already tried to weather the deep spending cuts it endured in 2011-12, when $750 million was taken from Cal State’s funding. The current move is designed to pre-empt the damage caused by another $200 million in spending cuts if a tax hike ballot initiative backed by Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t win the blessing of California voters.

But deciding between increasing tuition and enrollment cuts is the wrong frame of mind, some analysts say. “Whether a state can really choose between budgets and enrollments sort of creates this false dichotomy,” says Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst at Education Sector. “Basically, states across the board have been disinvesting from their public higher education systems. And instead of institutions themselves saying ‘the buck stops here’ they turn to the students and say the buck stops with them.”

She adds that President Obama’s Race to the Top for Higher Education is a carrot that would encourage states to work on innovations in instruction to drive down costs. The administration’s billion-dollar proposal, announced in January, would still need to pass through Congress. 

Forty-six percent of California bachelor’s degrees are issued through CSU, according to 2010-11 figures, and many of those students come from demographics groups underrepresented in higher education. More than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanics in California are granted through one of the 23 Cal State universities, while the figure for blacks is 45 percent. The system is a great value as well: according to 2010 calculations, bachelor’s holders who took out loans as freshmen owe an average of $18,113 in loans, compared with over $21,000 among public four-year schools nationally.

Given that the state has a 10.9 percent unemployment rate (January figures), should Cal State bite the tuition spike bullet and admit more students by having them pay more? Or is this a valiant move aimed at doing the most equitable thing given the state’s debt overhang?