Lawmakers address college access, affordability; Senate leader seeks higher out-of-state rates

Government And Institutions Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown isn't expected to release his new budget until next month but higher education has already emerged as a contentious topic with legislators introducing competing plans to avoid tuition increases at the University of California and make college more accessible.

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Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, introduced SB15 on Tuesday that would increase state funding, redirect funds from a scholarship program, and charge a higher rate to out-of-state students.

The plan followed one announced Monday by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who called for implementing so-called zero-based budgeting for the UC system, a process that would force the university each year to justify its spending.

Meanwhile, new GOP Assemblywoman Young Kim of Fullerton introduced a bill shortly after being sworn in that would freeze tuition at UC and CSU while temporary tax hikes remain in effect.

The competing proposals will have to be worked out with Brown to be included in his upcoming budget.

The plans came amid rising anger over a decision by the UC Board of Regents to increase tuition as much as 5 percent each of the next five years unless the state approves more money for the 10-campus system.

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UC President Janet Napolitano welcomed SB15, authored by Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego.

"The bill introduced today is a promising first step toward making sure that public higher education benefits Californians today and for generations to come, and we look forward to working with Senate Democrats and other elected officials to secure the state funding essential to this end," Napolitano said.

Tuition has been frozen at the University of California for the past three years following a series of increases that nearly doubled rates since 2006. Under the plan approved by the Board of Regents, the average annual cost for a California resident would increase by $612 next fall, to $12,804. The total cost would grow to $15,564 by fall 2019.

The Board of Regents' vote has drawn criticism from Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, legislative leaders and students. Lawmakers have been critical of the UC system in part because they say its board has resisted efforts to reduce costs.

Brown has suggested offering more online classes, requiring faculty members to devote more time to teaching instead of research, and curbing salaries for administrators and professors.

The proposal by Atkins, D-San Diego, calls for the repeal of the tuition increases by adding $50 million to the UC system's budget from the state's general fund and increasing Cal Grant financial aid. She also called for increasing fees on out-of-state enrollees and adding 10,000 slots over five years.

Meanwhile, SB15 calls for increasing UC enrollment by 5,000 and CSU enrollment by 10,500 for the 2015-16 school year as a way to boost the number of transfers allowed from community colleges.

De Leon said he wants to improve access to colleges, make them more affordable and help students finish degrees because the California job market will face a shortage of 1 million college graduates in 10 years.

"It is absolutely clear that the future of California's economy depends on the vibrancy and the quality of our higher education system," he said. "This is also about access, access and making sure our kids in fact graduate on a timely basis."

His plan also would redirect a middle class scholarship account created by his political rival, former Assembly Speaker John Perez, who is termed out of office but was recently appointed to the UC board by the governor.

Atkins said she opposed phasing out the scholarship, which has benefited nearly 78,000 students whose families earn less than $150,000 a year. Her plan calls for speeding up the implementation of the scholarship.

De Leon says his plan would use the scholarship money more efficiently to benefit a larger group of students and add course offerings. Perez said there's a way to avoid tuition hikes while also providing much-needed relief for middle-class families.

"This is the beginning of an idea," Perez said. "The pro tem was trying to be responsible in finding a way to pay for his proposal and I think that as it works its way through the Legislature, other possibilities will present themselves."