The University of California appeals a court ruling on tuition hikes

Organized medicine has filed an amicus brief on behalf of students who relied on a promise of no boosts in tuition.

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted June 18, 2007

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The University of California may have to give back $33.8 million to 9,000 students who attended its professional schools in 2003, including 2,571 medical students.

In 2006, a California Superior Court judge found the university system in breach of contract for raising tuition and ordered it to pay back the students the fee hikes plus interest.

The university is appealing the decision, prompting the American Medical Association/State Medical Societies Litigation Center and the California Medical Assn. in May to file a joint friend-of-the-court brief on students' behalf.

"The University of California explicitly promised its medical students that they would not increase tuition," said Rebecca J. Patchin, MD, AMA secretary and California anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist. "They went back on their word and allowed repeated increases, disrupting the students' financial planning and jeopardizing their ability to continue their studies."

For Janet Lee, MD, the named medical student plaintiff, tuition jumped from $5,000 to $12,673 per year while she attended the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. The increases pushed her student loans to $60,000, according to the AMA, double what she would have borrowed.

The lawsuit, which is winding its way through California's Court of Appeals, has its roots early in this decade, when state revenue shortfalls triggered steep budget cuts, including education. In 2003, the UC system, which includes five medical schools, raised tuition. Students in professional degree programs saw immediate hikes of $400 to $1,700 per semester. One tuition hike was retroactive, with students receiving a second bill for the 2003 spring semester after many had paid their original bill in full.

Later that year, seven law students and one medical student, Dr. Lee, filed a class-action lawsuit against the university system claiming breach of contract. The university, students alleged, stated in multiple materials that it would keep tuition stable for each entering class during their time there.

"We're not challenging the university's right in general to raise fees. We're holding them to a promise that they made to a particular group of students," said Danielle Leonard, co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

A university spokesman said the school was within its rights to raise tuition because it also posted a disclaimer that fees could be changed at any time.

In 2006, a trial court judge ruled in the students' favor, including those in schools of business, dentistry, law, pharmacy, optometry and veterinary medicine. AMNews calculations based on court documents indicate that medical students would receive roughly one-third of the judgment.

A spokesman for the university said if the appeal fails, future students could face even higher tuition hikes.

"There's a finite amount of money, and the university either has to raise its fees or cut educational services," said Chris Patti, counsel for the University of California.

According to the AMA, total fees at UC medical schools rose 160% for in-state students between 1996-97 and 2006-07. "UC's tuition fee spike far exceeded the cost-of-living increases during that period and is remarkable, even in an era in which public university medical school tuition overall has grown faster than private medical school tuition," the AMA and CMA brief stated.

The medical society brief told the court high medical school debt substantially impacts physicians career choices and may deter many from working among the underserved.

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Case at a glance

Mohammad Kashmiri et al. v. The Regents of the University of California

Venue: California Court of Appeals, 1st District, Division 2
At issue: Whether the University of California must refund $33.8 million to students attending when there was a tuition hike in mid-2003, including refunds to 2,000 to 2,500 medical students. A lower court said yes. The school system is appealing.
Impact: University officials say the school system may have to raise tuition if the lower court decision stands. Organized medicine says additional debt medical students incurred negatively impacts public health by making it less financially feasible for graduates to practice in underserved areas.

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