By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - The new president of the University of California proposed freezing the cost of undergraduate tuition for another year to allow for an overhaul of how to pay for higher education in the state.
Janet Napolitano, the former U.S. homeland security chief, announced the proposal on Wednesday, just six weeks after taking over the 10-campus University of California system, saying it would give administrators time to create a tuition system that would be less of a burden on families.
California has kept undergraduate tuition steady for the past two years, as politicians wrangled over state funding and families continued to struggle in the recovering economy.
"Tuition goes right to the heart of accessibility and affordability, two of the university's guiding stars," Napolitano said in remarks to regents in San Francisco.
Education advocates welcomed the move in a state where a smaller portion of high school graduates are going to university - in part because of ever-increasing fees. U.C. tuition has more than tripled since 1990, topping out at around $12,000 per year.
Michele Siquieros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, said the freeze would be of little help unless the state develops a long-term plan to both fund the university and avoid spikes in tuition, as Napolitano has urged.
"When times have been really bad, we've increased tuition for students, and when times are better we roll back," said Siqueiros. "The roller coaster ride of fees for California students is really unfair."
In hiring Napolitano to run the prestigious system - which includes the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles - state officials were counting on her political savvy and fund-raising prowess to restore a system racked by years of budget cuts and turmoil.
Chosen from among more than 300 candidates, the 55-year-old Democrat took the helm of a university struggling to recover from economic crises that have eaten away at the state budget on and off for nearly two decades.
Cuts of nearly $1 billion over the last five years led to several tuition increases as well as class shortages, and have strained relations with faculty and staff through the imposition of furlough days and hiring freezes.
Napolitano has quickly moved to restore relationships with faculty and students. In her first major action last month, she announced new programs aimed to help undocumented immigrants and graduate students pay for their educations.
"We need to figure out, in the real world in which we live, how to bring clarity to, and reduce volatility in, the tuition-setting process. It's time for the university to collaboratively come up with another way," Napolitano told the regents.
One possibility, Napolitano said, is "cohort tuition," in which fees are kept fairly steady through the four years that any given freshman class spends in the system's 10 campuses.
The university would also embark on an efficiency review of the massive system's spending habits, led by her office, Napolitano said.
But she said the university will only be able to hold tuition steady if it brings in more money - both from private sources and from the state. She said her administration would seek to increase the university's sources of revenue by increasing public-private partnerships, philanthropic donations, grants and joint ventures.
She also nudged the state to provide additional funding, now that the economy is improving, and promised to examine ways to improve the process by which community college students transfer to the university.
"The State of California must do its part," Napolitano said. "The university needs additional funding for UC's retirement plan and enrollment growth. Any successful tuition policy will require a clear, predictable partnership with the state."
California Governor Jerry Brown, who attended the regents meeting as an ex-officio member of the board, supports the tuition freeze, a spokesman told Reuters. The regents do not need to approve a tuition freeze, Klein said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Orlofsky, Leslie Adler, Bob Burgdorfer and Ken Wills)