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Will California's tuition-free colleges become history?

California seems on the verge of losing one of it most-valued symbols of economic and social progressivism: tuition-free public education from kindergarten to PhD.

With the property tax limitations of Proposition 13 holding down local revenues and recession pushing the state budget into deficit, legislators and others responsible for education funding have moved reluctantly to impose tuition in the community colleges and state universities.

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But the very word ''tuition'' - which of itself raises no eyebrows elsewhere in the United States - is fraught with political danger in California. Therefore the new charges, almost certain to be imposed, may be disguised as ''fees.''

Already, in the state's two university systems - the University of California (UC) and the California State Universities - student fees are higher than those in many other states. UC charges state residents $1,194 a year; those who enroll in the less-prestigious state universities pay $441.

But that money cannot be used to pay instructional costs, such as faculty salaries - the greatest expense for any school. Up to now, the fees have been used only for services such as counseling and health care.

For more than a century the state, through legislative appropriations, has paid the full cost of instruction for Californians admitted to its colleges and universities. Anyone with a high school diploma can gain admission at some level of the system - two-year college, state university, or University of California (the most selective).

On Dec. 13, the state's Post-Secondary Education Commission unanimously approved, and sent to the governor and Legislature, a list of recommendations. One recommendation stated that ''when state appropriations are not sufficient,'' the boards of governors of the two university systems be permitted to raise student fees and use them for any purpose.

The commission also urged that graduate students be charged up to 10 percent more than the fee assessed undergraduates, that medical students be charged 20 percent more, and that financial aid be provided for those who can demonstrate inability to pay the fees.

Use of the word ''tuition'' was avoided, but university administrators may choose to be less circumspect. Approval by the state Legislature and California's new Republican governor, George Deukmejian, is considered certain.

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Cries of protest already are being heard from those most directly affected. Four years ago, when the universities began charging some fees, parent and student resistance was fierce. Since then, those fees have more than doubled.

At the two-year college level, the state Board of Governors of the Community Colleges last week sent to the legislature a stand-by plan for imposing fees on students. Responding to pressure by students and educators at a public hearing, the board urged that any fees imposed by the legislators be an ''emergency'' measure limited to one school year.

The California community college system has been the model for such ''junior colleges'' across the nation. Almost totally financed in the past by local taxes , the ''commuter'' colleges provide adult education and trade-school instruction as well as entry to the four-year universities.

Recently some legislators and other critics have charged that these institutions have been over-staffed by overpaid faculty, have offered courses unfit for the college level, and have been too accessible to people not really interested in higher education. Some have said that at least a minimal fee should be charged to discourage nonserious students.

Advocates of the free system of higher education admit the present revenue bind may require establishing tuition or other fees. But they hope any charges will disappear when the economy regains its strength.

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