The Battle to Fund California's Public University System

State funding hasn't budged since 1999, and UC president Janet Napolitano says state leaders still want to cut costs further.

So-called innovations that lower the cost of tuition won't address the University of California's problems, University of California System President Janet Napolitano said at a National Journal Live event Thursday in San Jose. But state funding might.

"In the never-ending quest to innovate higher education, the major focus has been making colleges and universities cheaper—cheaper for students, cheaper for state legislators, and cheaper for those who run the institutions," said Napolitano. "In the process, we run the risk of cheapening the education itself."

Napolitano is currently locked in a battle with Gov. Jerry Brown and the California legislature over the system's budget. University leaders want more state funding or the ability to be able to raise tuition every year for the next five years. But Brown has written a tuition freeze into his budget plan. Last month, Napolitano said that UC will cap the number of in-state students it admits if the system doesn't get more funding.

"We're doing everything we can to manage costs," she said at the event. "But all costs are not waste." The UC system gets the same amount of state funding that it received in 1999, Napolitano noted, even though enrollment has grown tremendously in the meantime. The system has had to raise tuition and enroll more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than Californians.

Napolitano said some innovations are worth exploring, and that she's talked to Brown about several—finding ways for students to graduate in three years, for example. But the residential learning experience on a UC campus, she insisted, must be preserved.

Asked when she'll strike a deal with Brown, Napolitano simply said: "I think we both recognize that this is a problem to be solved."

Napolitano also weighed in on the issue of UC's diversity. Asian students are overrepresented on University of California campuses, while Latino and African-American students are underrepresented. She said she doesn't know how an enrollment cap would affect UC's demographics.

The state's 1996 ban on affirmative action has had a negative impact on the share of Latino and African-American students admitted to the university system, Napolitano said. She also said that many qualified students simply don't apply: "We have students who are eligible, and would be admitted to the University of California, choosing to go to community college."

Community college students can transfer to UC, but the process can be confusing and complicated. Napolitano said that UC is trying to streamline the transfer process and expand outreach to more community-college campuses.

"I'm particularly concerned about the African-American population in California," Napolitano said. Latino enrollment is rising, in part because Latinos make up a growing share of the state population. But African-American enrollment hasn't moved at all.

Public research universities like UC are still trying to figure out how to recruit and retain African-American students, she said.