In the “Master Plan for California Higher Education: 1960-1975” and the associated Donahoe Higher Education Act, Californians created an ambitious framework for public higher education in the state. A central tenet was that the state would support educational programs, while student fees would support services such as housing, food and recreation. The critical implication was that California residents would not pay tuition for educational programs.
Practical problems confronted this framework from the start, and they continue to this day. Understanding these challenges provides perspectives that help us understand the role of tuition and fees at San Diego State today.
First, it was not possible to implement the Master Plan’s no-tuition policy. Rather, tuition and fees were characterized by a staircase pattern in which they did not increase for an extended time (reinforcing the view that there should be no tuition or at least no tuition increases) and then rose dramatically (raising ire that the promise of no tuition had been betrayed). This happened multiple times. For example, from 1975-1980, tuition and fees at my alma mater of UCLA increased from $600 to $685, an average modest increase of 3 percent per year. However, from 1980 to 1985 tuition and fees increased from $719 to $1,245, an average increase of 15 percent per year. An identical pattern occurred from 1995 to 2005, when tuition and fees actually decreased an average of 2 percent annually from 1995 to 2000, only to increase a dramatic 16 percent annually between 2000 and 2005.
Second, the fundamental distinction between educational programs and ancillary services slowly, but inexorably, eroded. This challenge was clear at the outset when course materials, such as laboratory pipettes, were excluded from state funding although they were clearly necessary to the educational program. Technological and academic innovations, such as increasingly powerful and sophisticated computers and Internet connectivity, exacerbated the challenge. A variety of technology and “instructionally related activity fees” were created across the California State University to support these and other academic program needs.
In 2011, former CSU Chancellor Charles Reed issued Executive Order 1054 to provide a rational structure to understand the “share of the educational costs to be assumed by students and their families,” as well as the putative “state’s fiscal responsibility for providing funding for student access.” The Executive Order codifies five different categories of fees. Within these, Category I fees are “systemwide mandatory tuition fees” under control of the CSU Board of Trustees. Category II fees are “campus mandatory fees,” and each campus president is responsible for ensuring a consultative process prior to the chancellor’s approval of a Category II campus fee. The president must establish a Campus-Fee Advisory Committee with substantial student representation that includes the democratically elected student body president. The university president must seek the recommendation of this committee prior to making any recommendation to the chancellor. To gather student input, the committee may use a referendum or an alternative consultation process that includes campuswide distribution of information and outreach.
Recently, I forwarded, and Chancellor Timothy White approved, a Category II student success fee. The motivation for this fee, as with most of the fees since the Master Plan’s adoption, stems from limited resources. Between 2007 and 2011, San Diego State’s state appropriation decreased from $221 million to $103 million. Since 2011, our state appropriation has increased to $143 million, and we are grateful for this renewed support. Nonetheless, our state support is still $78 million, or 35 percent, below its 2007 level. We have addressed this challenge by seeking cost efficiencies and increasing revenues from diverse sources, including private fundraising, non-resident student tuition and our auxiliary organizations.
Our new strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” recommends the university “work collaboratively with Associated Students to establish a university excellence fee.” This process began this fall. Following initial meetings and student surveys, the Campus-Fee Advisory Committee recommended that we consider a student success fee through alternative consultation. Ninety percent of the revenues from this fee would support the hiring of tenure-track faculty and the addition of course sections. The remaining 10 percent would support co-curricular academic opportunities for students. The committee’s rationale for using alternative consultation, in contrast to a referendum, was that the complexity of evaluating the proposed fee required a full exposition of the benefits and costs of the fee rather than a simple solicitation of a “yes” or “no” vote. I concurred with the recommendation.
The advisory committee – which has a majority student membership – created information materials and worked with faculty, staff and administrators to host 39 public forums for a broad range of student groups and the University Senate. They also distributed a variety of letters, pamphlets and videos to inform the campus of the alternative consultation process and to encourage attendance at the public forums. At the conclusion of each forum, students in attendance were asked whether they endorsed a fee and, if so, at what level – $200, $300, $400, or $500 per semester. Over 1,000 students attended forums, and feedback forms were received from 1,015 students. Of those, 64 percent voted for a fee of $200 or more. The average fee recommended was $318 per semester. Following consideration of this input, the committee voted 12-0 (with one abstention) to recommend a $200 fee per semester. Although the primary purpose of the fee is to support the hiring of tenure-track faculty members, the Staff Affairs Committee also supported the fee. The primary rationale for these votes was that the benefit to students of additional faculty members and co-curricular opportunities outweighed the costs.
The advisory committee members were both sensitive to, and mindful of, the traditions of excellence and access that stem from the Master Plan and have greatly benefited California. Two important steps were taken to help students whose ability to enroll at SDSU might be impacted by increased fees. The fee increase will be implemented over a four-year period. For next semester, tuition and fees will increase by $50 – less than a 1.5 percent increase given our current semester cost of $3,383 for tuition and fees. In addition, we are creating a hardship fund for the coming year in collaboration with Associated Students – to ensure that no student has to leave San Diego State due to increased fees. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships will implement a “hardship exception” process, and non-state funds will be used to cover the fee for any students for whom the fee constitutes an undue hardship. Moving forward, the Division of Academic Affairs will conduct student surveys and interviews on curricular and co-curricular needs that will guide and inform how the fee money is spent. The Campus-Fee Advisory Committee will develop guidelines for the co-curricular process.
Our campus has had a robust discussion on the student success fee and many of the historical and policy issues that still arise from the Master Plan. Three principles should guide our future discussions.
First, we must continue to ensure that students from all backgrounds have access to California’s universities. San Diego State is a national leader in ensuring that students from all economic backgrounds succeed academically. We will continue to lead because this tenet is essential to the success of our society.
Second, we must recognize that the financing model can, and must, differ for students with different financial resources. Some students and their families will finance their own educations. Other students will rely on private scholarships. Still others will use a mix of private scholarships, government scholarships and loans. A variety of models are possible and beneficial.
Third, there must be continued support for, and increases of, Pell grant and CAL grant scholarship programs from the federal and state governments. Support of, and increased funding for, these programs will ensure the viability of a variety of financing models, as well as the rich socioeconomic diversity of our university.
There is, of course, a sense of sadness that the aspirational framework of the Master Plan faces continuing challenges. The spirit of California is, however, innovative, and the same spirit that crafted the Master Plan can pursue new approaches.
Let’s move forward. There is much to do.