Los Angeles (CNN) -- Faced with a state budget crisis, the University of California system on Thursday began examining a possible tuition increase up to 16% in fall 2012 and continuing that increase over the following three years, nearly doubling tuition, if state funding is flat.
The UC Board of Regents considered a four-year plan to address a $2.5 billion budget shortfall by 2015-16 that would call for tuition increases of 8% to 16%, depending on whether the distressed state can boost current financing.
The regents discussed potential four-year scenarios Thursday and decided to report back to the chairman in 10 days about alternatives to tuition hikes, said Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for UC President Mark Yudof.
Those ideas, broached in Thursday's meeting in San Francisco, include holding a ballot initiative to raise taxes, raising revenue from the private sector for scholarships, organizing a public service campaign financed by Google or another firm about the UC system's contribution to the state, and working with state lawmakers on securing more public funding, Klein said.
Without voting on the four-year plan, the regents agreed, "Let's beat the drums, let's get creative, because we don't want to raise tuition and we don't want to compromise quality," Klein said.
The four-year tuition increase proposal drew sharp criticism from students. The plan by Yudof's office said "a bold new approach is necessary to save the university from an irreversible decline into mediocrity."
"A multiyear plan would provide a stable and predictable framework by which the university can meet its base budget needs, even as the state's fiscal situation continues to be immensely unstable," said the proposal to the board's finance committee.
The University of California has experienced dramatic swings in state support the past two decades, and this fall, the system lost $650 million in state funding after lawmakers reduced a budget shortfall from $26 billion to $5 billion.
If the state doesn't increase funding next fall beyond this year's $2.37 billion, the UC system would have to raise tuition by 16%, according to the plan.
But if the state were to increase UC funding by 4% next year, the proposed tuition increase would be 12%, and the fee increase would be 8% if state funding were also raised 8%, the proposal said.
Those tuition hike scenarios would also apply to the following three years, the four-year plan said.
"Having a certain source of revenue that will be available to fund basic needs and help maintain quality is needed to stave off what many are concerned could be a whittling away of the university's world-class faculty, which has taken the institution years to develop, due to the inability of the university to secure its financial status," the president's plan said.
But leaders of the University of California Student Association, which represents the more than 220,000 students on 10 campuses, objected to the proposed tuition hikes and said middle-class students are slowly being priced out of a public higher education.
If a 16% tuition increase were imposed in fall 2012, students are likely to hold campus protests, said Claudia Magaņa, association president and a senior at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
"We would probably come out and protest again," as students unsuccessfully did more than a year ago against another tuition increase, Magaņa said. "It's almost second nature now to go to a fee increase. Students will have to look internally on whether they can stay in the system and how they can continue to afford it, especially middle-class students whose families have small businesses that aren't doing well."
Four years of 16% fee increases would be "just unsustainable" for students, Magaņa said.
"Right now, literally, I paid $5,000 today for my fall quarter," Magaņa said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where she was attending the regents meeting. "My family isn't going to be making enough to support that for four years. It's difficult for students to get jobs to support themselves. How will we make 16% extra a year to attend UC?"
Darius Kemp, spokesman for the student association, said the state needs to look at alternative revenues such as creating a tax on oil companies extracting crude, which Texas imposes on energy firms there.
Such a California tax could generate up to $3 billion a year, Kemp said.
UC students now pay $12,200 in annual tuition, but the total cost reaches $30,000 or so if books, supplies, transportation, and room and board are included, Kemp said.
That figure approaches $40,000, akin to the costs of elite private universities, if the student attends the campuses in Los Angeles, Berkley or San Francisco, where rents are higher, Kemp said.
Four consecutive years of 16% tuition increases would bring tuition to about $22,110 by fall 2015, Kemp said.
The president's plan said the "inadequacy" of state funding since 1990 has resulted in the tripling of the share of cost upon students: They now pay 49% of the cost of their higher education, compared with 13% in 1990-91.
As enrollment has grown, the UC system implemented austerity measures such as paying faculty and staff salaries that lag behind the market, reducing hiring, increasing class sizes, deferring maintenance and capital renewal and providing less depth and breadth in course offerings, the plan said.