An SOS for Public Education

“I actually think the students ought to be angry about the fee increase proposal,” Mark Yudof said during his speech proposing a $585 mid-year tuition increase at the UC Regents meeting on Sept. 16, 2009.

Don’t worry, Mr. Yudof. We are.

We, the students of the University of California, are angry.

We are angry. We are worried. We are scared.

We are worried about how to pay for an unrelenting series of tuition increases. We are worried about the quality of our education and scared that once we leave this institution, our degree will not be enough to find a decent job to repay our loans. We are scared that we will be the first generation of Americans who cannot attain a better quality of life than our parents.

Since 2006, annual tuition and fees have hiked from $6,794 to $9,399, an astounding increase of 73 percent. Even worse, that number does not include Yudof’s proposed increase, which would bump the total up to $9,984. Once living expenses and other basic needs are factored in, the University of California Student Association estimates that the full cost of a UC education amounts to a whopping $25,300!

How can students possibly be expected to deal with these hikes? Where are we supposed to find the money?

It is true that President Yudof and others have promised to increase the amount of financial aid. They have promised that part of the fee hike will be funneled back toward helping needy students cope with the increase.

According to an article posted on its Web site, the UC Office of the President believes that the increase in student aid, along with Cal Grants, Pell Grants and federal tax credit, will provide “enough additional resources to cover the full amount of the fee increases.” That’s simply not true. Students know that the amount of aid available has not grown nearly fast enough to meet the demand. We know that we are graduating with more debt than ever. We know that many of us have had to compromise our studies in order to work multiple jobs and that our families have had to dip into nest eggs and rainy-day funds.

For years now, students and their families have sacrificed a lot in order to meet the runaway tuition costs. Now, that is no longer an option. With California’s unemployment rate at the highest it has been in over 70 years, many students have seen one or both parents lose a job. With the housing market down and personal investments devastated, students and their families can’t absorb another increase in tuition costs.

We understand that it isn’t business as usual around campus. We understand that the university faces a $535 million budget cut, and that the state of California has been criminal in its chronic underfunding of the UC system. We understand that everyone is taking hits. We have seen programs cut, class offerings thin and some of our favorite lecturers pink-slipped. We realize that faculty and staff alike have had to take salary cuts that they can’t always afford

And yet, none of this changes the fact that students, who have few options for increasing income, have already seen basic fees increase by 9.3 percent this year, by more than 130 percent since 2001. None of this changes the fact that whatever Yudof and other administrators may say, students have already been hit in the quality of our education. The University of California, the premier public university in the world, lost its way the moment it stopped insisting on affordability and accessibility.

You see, those who say that the UCs are still a much better bargain than a private university miss the point. On the surface, this is true. It does in fact still cost less to attend a UC than it does to attend a private school. However, due to better aid packages, private universities are narrowing the gap. The point is that people need to remember that the UC is a public university and not a private one. They need to remember that the UC was created because Californians realized that a society could not afford to make quality higher education the sole province of the rich.

As James L. Morrill, the late President of the University of Minnesota, said in a quote featured prominently in California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, the notion of using student tuition to pay for the costs of a college education is “an incomprehensible repudiation of the whole philosophy of a successful democracy premised upon an educated citizenry…no realistic and unrealizable counter-proposal for some vast new resource for scholarship aid and loans can compensate for a betrayal of the ‘American Dream’ of equal opportunity.”

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