The University of California will soon be considering a governance change that’s as overdue as it is depressing — changing the formal title of students’ payments from “fees” to “tuition.”

For most of the history of the University UC was free or nearly so. The system was created in 1868, but as late as 1956 the student fee stood at less than $100 a year. The state was committed to the principle that, as the university’s 1960 Master Plan had put it, UC would always be “tuition free to all residents of the state,” with teaching expenses absorbed by the taxpayer and fees representing “charges to the students for services not directly related to instruction, such as health, counseling … placement services, housing, recreation, and the like.”

Fees rose to $600 a year by the mid-seventies, and spiked again in the early eighties, but the increases were modest compared to what would come later. (The 1956 fee had amounted to $656 in today’s dollars, while the the 1990 fee was worth $2362 in present-day money.)

Costs to students rose throughout this period — more some years than others — but the premise of public higher education in California remained the same. Students would be asked to contribute to the costs of their education, but the bulk of the price of their instruction — their tuition — would be paid for by the state.

Today, that premise — that promise — no longer exists. Since 1990, per-student state funding for the University of California has fallen by two thirds in constant dollars. (I’ll say that again: For every 2010 dollar that California spent on a UC student twenty years ago, it now spends just thirty-three cents.)

And as state support for higher ed has fallen, UC “fees” have exploded. They now stand at more than $10,000 a year, well above the national average for public colleges, and they could rise by as much as 20% this fall.

As early as 1970, State Senator Al Rodda wrote that it was “no longer possible … to argue that we have not adopted the tuition principle in California.” But by calling tuition “fees,” the university has continued to make just that argument.

Sometime in the next few weeks it will stop.