Should an education at UC Berkeley cost more than one at UC Santa Cruz? Should a student pay $11,000 in tuition at UC Riverside while his friend is billed $16,000 at UCLA?
Leaders of the 10-campus University of California system are considering such questions as they grapple with state budget cuts that already have led to tuition increases, staff layoffs and cuts in class offerings.
Advocates of allowing undergraduate tuition to vary by campus say the change would raise funds the universities could share and consumer demand should play a bigger role in setting tuition. But opponents contend the idea is inherently elitist and could harm the unified nature of the UC system.
The debate is similar to tensions within large corporations with many divisions, said R. Michael Tanner, chief academic officer and vice president at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
"Some say, 'Cut us free and let us be our own profit center,' " he said.
Nationally, UC is late to the debate, with many other state university systems long ago having established differential tuitions for their campuses, said Tanner, a former administrator at UC Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But, he said, most such systems have a single clearly recognized flagship, such as the University of Texas at Austin or the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which typically are allowed to charge higher tuition than the others.
In contrast, UC has UC Berkeley and UCLA, both often considered flagships, and several other campuses with high national rankings, he and other analysts said. In another difference from many other states, California also has a second public university system, the Cal State system, which traditionally has emphasized its teaching mission more than academic research and charges lower tuition than UC.
Perhaps not surprisingly, officials at UC Berkeley and UCLA have been among the most vocal advocates for some freedom in setting undergraduate tuition rates, which now are established uniformly by UC's Board of Regents.
The board has raised basic in-state tuition 8 percent for next school year, to $11,124. Campuses charge varying other fees for student activities, health, parking, and room and board that can bring total costs to more than $27,000 a year. UC's graduate and professional schools set varying tuitions, with approval from the regents.
UC's Commission on the Future, a panel studying changes and ways to increase revenues, did not fully endorse differential tuition in its report in December, but it said UC should find ways to implement variable fees if the state's fiscal crisis worsens.
Nathan Brostrom, UC's executive vice president for business operations, said recently the university would continue to explore the concept.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said he would like the regents to set a midpoint for undergraduate tuition and allow campuses to range up to 25 percent above or below that. Such a plan would give campuses the flexibility and income they need but maintain a sense of a UC system and provide additional financial aid, he said.
"We can't just completely devolve control to each of the campuses," he said. "That would be chaotic."
Birgeneau said critics incorrectly assume his campus would jump at the chance to significantly increase its fees. That might not be the case, he said, because UC Berkeley has more research funds and donations than UC Merced, for example, which might have more need of additional tuition revenue.