Napolitano speaks with alumni about tuition, online education in webchat Thursday

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UC President Janet Napolitano spoke about tuition hikes, the university’s response to sexual assault, the increasing number of out-of-state students in the system and online education during a webchat with UC alumni and the public Thursday.

The Google Hangout was the third in a series of conversations with particular groups in the UC community. The first, in January, addressed students specifically, and the second was held with employees. The latest hour-long webchat included questions from a panel of representatives from the alumni community as well as the general public.

Julia Lee, a 2013 graduate of UC Riverside, asked Napolitano what her plans were to minimize potential tuition and fee increases. Napolitano said that though the university has frozen tuition for three years in a row, she couldn’t promise there would never again be a tuition increase. However, she said tuition is still relatively low.

“If you compare the full sticker price to an elite private university, you get a four-year education for what you would pay for freshman year at comparable schools,” she said.

Tuition increases may be discussed at the next UC Board of Regents meeting Sept. 17 and 18.

UC alumnus and parent Sherry Nealon expressed her concerns about safety on campus, especially for female students. Napolitano replied by saying the university was taking steps to combat sexual assault, including education efforts — particularly for incoming freshmen — as well as dedicating personnel to handle complaints and supervise investigations.

Listing her priorities for upcoming years, Napolitano highlighted keeping tuition as low and predictable as possible, streamlining the transfer process, making the university carbon-neutral by 2025 and examining the diversity of faculty. She also spoke of state disinvestment from public higher education as a major challenge.

“We need to get the state of California back in the game in a more serious way,” she said.

In an environment where public support for the university has decreased, the university’s 1.6 million alumni can help make the case for public higher education, Napolitano said.

“Alumni are our biggest validators — they illustrate what the University of California is all about,” Napolitano said at the webchat. “I can speak ‘til I’m blue in the face in Sacramento about why the UC merits greater support, but for alumni to take the time and trouble to write, meet or email their legislator — as someone who used to be on receiving end, it’s very important, very impactful.”

Napolitano fielded a question regarding middle-class California students being squeezed out of the university. The increase in the number of out-of-state students has been driven by “pure, old economics,” because these students pay more than California residents, she said.

Lee also asked whether the university would expand its online offerings, especially because some classes don’t have enough space for interested students. Napolitano said the university is exponentially increasing its offerings of online and partially online courses but noted she was leery of the “notion that we can cut a university’s budget and substitute online courses.”

Robert Kerner, an alumnus, asked whether the university had considered forgiving loans for students who pursue careers in public service, but Napolitano said such unilateral action had not been considered.

These Google Hangouts give people who might not normally have access to the president a chance to hear from Napolitano, said Brooke Converse, a UC spokesperson. The UC Office of the President would like to talk to faculty next, and it plans to continue these webchats as long as people continue watching, she said.

Sahil Chinoy covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.