There have been multiple tuition hikes over the years and fewer slots for students. But a California Watch investigation found the University of California system has $9 billion worth of construction projects underway at its 10 campuses and five medical centers.
UC San Francisco alone is spending $2 billion. And the Merced campus is going gangbusters with a new science and engineering building, an activities and athletic center, and housing to accommodate more students.
The California State University system has $161 million in projects.
"It makes me wonder if they can figure out how to do that, why can't they figure out how to reduce tuition and give more funding to expanding enrollment?" said UC Berkeley graduate student Charlie Eaton.
Financing for new buildings is complicated. The development phase takes as long as seven years, so these projects were in the pipeline long before the "Great Recession." Then the universities get loans by selling bonds, but the money can only be used for construction, not for ongoing expenses like lowering tuition or paying salaries.
"One cannot be used for the other," said Patrick Lenz, budget and capital resources vice president for the University of California system. "They're for very restrictive purposes."
Lenz also points out construction costs and interest rates are very low right now, and it's the perfect time to undertake multiple projects that provide badly needed jobs.
"We have over 60 percent of our buildings that are 30 years or older," said Lenz. "So we've got renovation issues. We've got seismic issues."
California Watch found, though, once some buildings are done, there's no taxpayer money to run them. The most glaring example is the sparkly new $36 million medical school at UC Riverside built last year. Officials are seeking private donations so they can open it. Lenz says they're just waiting for accreditation.
On top of that, UC and CSU campuses have about $1.2 billion worth of deferred maintenance. Again, the construction money cannot help pay for that.