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 delivered to university regents in San Francisco.
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.
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.
Since coming on board, Napolitano has 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," she told the regents.
One possibility, Napolitano said, is "cohort tuition," in which fees are kept fairly steady throughout the four years that any given freshman class spends at one of the system's 10 campuses.
University spokeswoman Dianne Klein said that the freezes in prior years were "piecemeal," but that the halt in tuition increases proposed by Napolitano for the 2014-2015 school year would be part of a careful plan for tuition in the future.
The regents do not need to approve a tuition freeze, she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Orlofsky and Leslie Adler)