Republicans in the state Legislature have proposed freezing tuition at California's public universities and community colleges for the next seven years.
The legislation, which was introduced this week before the governor announced his budget, also would increase funding to California State University, the University of California and community colleges so they don't have to charge more to make ends meet. But it doesn't give any specifics on how to do that.
"One of the biggest complaints I hear is about the increasing cost of tuition for public universities," said Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), who authored the bill. "We've been balancing the budgets at our state universities on the backs of students."
The governor's proposed budget gives the CSU and UC systems an additional $125 million each, in addition to the $125 million each was promised in Proposition 30, which raised taxes to support education. Community colleges would receive an additional $197 million.
But freezing tuition will work only if the state provides ongoing adequate funding for higher education, said Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the CSU system, which is still analyzing the bill's potential impact. If the state were to go into another recession, or if funding were cut again, college officials need the flexibility to raise tuition to meet their own budgets, he said.
In response to state budget cuts, CSU has nearly doubled annual tuition over the past five years, bringing it to $5,472. Including all student fees, it's $6,612.
"We don't raise tuition just to raise tuition, but in response to cuts," Uhlenkamp said.
"If there are guaranteed constants in the funding, then it makes sense to lock in funding, so families know what they'll be paying in tuition. But if there is no guarantee of funding, that limits the flexibility of the university."
There's also the issue of how much power the Legislature has to control tuition at the state's public universities and community colleges. The Legislature can only make recommendations to UC's board of regents, which sets tuition at its 23 campuses. But it could require the CSU to keep its tuition at today's level, Uhlenkamp said. The Legislature already sets tuition for community colleges.
The bill originally would have penalized the UC system if it raised tuition by decreasing state funding. But Gorell said he removed that part to give the bill broader appeal.
Tuition at UC campuses is $13,200, including fees. That's up from $7,517 five years ago. Community college students pay $46 per unit — more than double the rate five years ago.
California is not alone in proposing a tuition freeze. Other states, including Arizona, Iowa and New Hampshire, also have recently considered freezes, according to USA Today.
Proposition 30, which California voters approved in November, kept funding flat for the state's K-12 schools and community colleges. However, it doesn't guarantee that any of the additional money raised through higher taxes will go to CSU or UC. The proposed legislation also doesn't specify how funding would increase, or by how much.
And that's what concerns Richard Rush, president of CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo, about the proposed legislation.
"Any cap on tuition has to have an increase in state funding," Rush said. "The Legislature cannot expect quality higher education if it caps tuition and the state's investment in tuition. ... If it is precise about capping tuition, it needs to be precise about raising the state's investment as well."
David Ashley, student government president at Channel Islands, likes the prospect of knowing what college will cost, but he also has reservations about the bill.
"There's no real guarantee that the Legislature won't cut funding again," Ashley said. "I want to be optimistic, but we have to consider that possibility. If they decide to cut funding, we're out of luck."
The bill, which was introduced Monday, will go to committee next, probably in March.