By Connie Kwong
When the Regents of the University of California voted 14-7 on Thursday, Nov. 20 in favor of raising UC tuition by five percent annually for the next five years, they declared that they had no other options due to a lack of state funding for the UC system. Just the day before, during the UC Regents’ Long-Range Financial Plan Committee, Regents chair Bruce Varner quipped, “No one wants to see the price of a UC education increase, but I believe the plan is fair and necessary if UC is to remain a world-class, public-serving university.”
UC tuition currently costs $12,192, and the overall estimated expenses of attending a UC vary between $29,200 and $30,100. With the tuition hikes, tuition could cost as much as $15,564 by the 2019-20 school year. This is well above the national average public four-year university tuition cost of $9,100.
Varner’s claim that tuition hikes are “fair and necessary” is grossly inaccurate and insulting to UC students. The reality is that the Regents and the Calif. state government have failed their duty to the students of making higher education affordable.
Privatizing public education
Despite the initial practice of free tuition, administrative changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in major state funding cuts to the UC system, the introduction of tuition charges, and increased fees. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic 19 percent decline in state support for the university. The UC receives $460 million less today than it did before the recession.
A decline in state support equates to increased privatization of the UC system. And often, the disposition of a privatized system is that its objectives benefit its administrators rather than its constituency. This undermines the mission of public education because students are increasingly forced to bear the burden of the UC’s costs. In fact, we can look at the actions and statements of the Regents themselves as evidence.
For instance, in September, the Regents approved 20 percent raises for the chancellors of the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced campuses. Before the raises, these chancellors already made above $300,000 annually. The Regents also set the salary of the new UC Irvine chancellor Howard Gillman at a generous $485,000. UC President Janet Napolitano justified the raises by citing surveys showing that the average UC chancellor’s salary is lower than chancellors’ at other American public universities, and argued that UC chancellors should be paid “within a competitive range.” Moreover, according to an article in the Sacramento Bee, “UC officials have stated that additional revenue from tuition is needed to address about $7.2 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health benefits. They contend the state pays into pensions for other public employees, including those at California State University, and should pay for UC employees, too.”
While few would contest that the UC needs to adequately pay its employees, raising six-figure salaries whilst relying increasingly on students to supplement pension gaps paints an ugly picture of fiscal irresponsibility. The fact that meanwhile graduate student teaching assistants and service workers are paid meager wages should further raise eyebrows at the claim that “there isn’t enough money.” After all, the first and foremost mission of a public education system is to make education affordable, not maintain competitive salaries for its administrators.
Since news of the tuition hike proposals broke out, students across UC campuses have organized protests and demonstrations to voice their anger and opposition towards the tuition hikes.
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Napolitano stated that “student protests are not the most persuasive way to garner the regents’ attention” and that “‘When students come up and speak about their personal circumstance, or they have some data, or they have experience … those are very powerful ways to present the students’ position.”’
If anything, this demonstrates just how tone-deaf the Regents are to students’ concerns. Napolitano’s dismissal of the protests as being ineffective suggests a lack of genuine sympathy for students’ frustrations. Many students attended the Regents’ meetings last week and spoke about their personal and friends’ struggles to pay for their education. These anecdotes often shared commonalities like working long hours at multiple jobs and taking out thousands of dollars in loans.
As the shepherds of students attending the world’s most prestigious public university system, how can the Regents ignore the fact that a college degree has become a basic means to securing a stable job and income? And more importantly, how can they ignore the overwhelming abundance of data underlining how student loans are a drastic problem for American millennials? A report by the Institute for College Access and Success found that in 2013, 69 percent of college seniors graduated with student loan debt. On average, UC seniors graduate with $20,500 in debt, and the average inflation-adjusted debt at graduation of UC student borrowers has increased 14.1 percent (from $17,900 to $20,500) over the past 12 years. In the first quarter of 2014, education debt was the second-largest debt category in the US, totaling more than credit card and auto loan debt.
Who can we count on?
Gov. Brown’s plans to allocate four percent more in state revenues to the UC was contingent on extending the 2012 tuition freezes, but Napolitano has argued that this still isn’t enough to cover expenses.
This prompts me to ask: if the Regents were truly devoted to protecting students’ interests, why didn’t they side with the students so that together, they could demand a bigger and better funding package from the state government?
Regardless of whatever answer the Regents have for that question, the truth is that a decline in state funding has forced the UC to look to other sources of funding – in other words, students’ pockets. The UC Office of the President reported, “In 1990, students paid 13 percent of their educational costs. In 2011, they are paying 49 percent.”
Raising tuition will only reinforce a precedent for future tuition hikes, and this is not a sustainable or fair practice. The UC Regents have effectively abandoned the principles outlined in former UC president Clark Kerr’s California Master Plan for Higher Education, and this hurts the integrity of public education. Although that integrity was arguably already compromised when the UC introduced tuition charges and fee hikes in the 1970s, annual five percent tuition hikes are anything but “low and predictable as possible” as Napolitano claims.
Education should not be a debt sentence. The responsibility of providing sufficient funds to the UC ultimately rests on the state. But it’s the Regents’ job to fight for the students of the University of California.