The first thing to change was the price tag. Within living memory, all public universities in California were nominally free (fees were assessed, but were comparatively quite low). Today, California colleges and universities are comparably priced to their private competitors. Reagan began the process of privatization in 1969, convincing the state to relax its restrictions on the level of fees that could be assessed. By 2011, when UC officially switched from a system of fees to an explicitly tuition-centric model, it was simply admitting what had long been obvious; so-called “fees” were already high enough to constitute a tuition system. And as UC Faculty Association president Bob Meister pointed out in a widely circulated 2009 online open letter, “They Pledged Your Tuition,” the UC finances its many construction bonds by pledging the revenues it collects and plans to collect from tuition as collateral, effectively using its power to raise tuition indefinitely as a surety for its debts (of which it has many), and thereby ensuring that it will.
When we talk about the decline of public higher education systems such as California’s, however, rising tuition is only part of the story, and maybe not the most important part. Along with pushing instructional costs onto students, for example, the state of California has made it easier for state universities to balance their budgets by accepting more out-of-state students (and thus, fewer and fewer Californian students). Out-of-state students pay much higher tuition rates, but under the Master Plan, state funding was contingent on enrolling a minimum number of in-state students. As the state has withdrawn its commitment to fully fund its universities, it has progressively detached what funding remains from these kinds of commitments. Governor Jerry Brown may have put the final nail in the coffin when, in June, he vetoed specific enrollment targets for the UC from the annual budget. Moreover, since 2007, the extra $20,000 in tuition money that out-of-state students pay has gone directly to the schools enrolling these students—rather than reverting to the UC as a whole—perversely incentivizing each campus to take on fewer California students.