University of California tuition to increase 32 percent

BlogHer Original Post

Today, a panel of the University of California Regents—the ten-university system's governing body—approved a proposal to increase undergraduate "fees" (UC's word for tuition) by 32 percent over the coming year. Should the full board of Regents consent to the increase tomorrow, students will see a fee increase of more than $2,500 by fall 2010.

Needless to say, this is a huge leap.  (By comparison, when I was an undergraduate a little more than a decade ago, tuition at my (non-UC) school increased by 2-4% a year.)  Coming on top of all the cuts being made to education and to supporting units at the UC, the increase is brutal.

The university community isn't taking this news sitting down--unless you count sit-insThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports,

Fourteen protesters were arrested at UCLA when they disrupted the meeting and refused to leave. Protesters then stopped the meeting several times, shouting "Whose university? Our university!" and chanting "We Shall Overcome." Hundreds of students and staff members also gathered at Berkeley and UCLA to begin a three-day protest of the tuition increases and faculty and staff furloughs.

University leaders have argued that the fee increases are necessary to compensate for severe cuts in state support. Mark G. Yudof, the system's president, said three out of four students would be shielded from the effects of the tuition increase by additional financial aid.

What Yudof is really saying—despite assurances elsewhere that the university system will raise grants to subsidize students who demonstrate financial need—is that students who can't afford to pay tuition up front will now have the privilege of taking out even more loans.  College has become so expensive that paying back such loans--particularly if a student goes on to grad school--can become a decades-long commitment.  (Me, I'm paying off my UC graduate education on a 20-year plan.  It's like the mortgage I can't afford because I work at the University of California and live in a UC town.)

Jenna Benty explains the impacts the budget cuts already have had on financial aid.  She focuses in particular on a program that was recently cut from UC Irvine, Student Academic Advancement Services, "which helped support low-income, first generation or disabled students." Benty continues: 

Ironically, the program SAAS was recently eliminated due to budget cuts, considering these are the students that are largely affected by the budget cuts and tuition increases. When talking to past SAAS students and now ex-coworkers, Deborah was shocked to find “the students were rationing their food in order to fight the termination and tuition increase just so they could have the opportunity to study abroad.”

Low-income students have now taken the budget problems from both ends, not only will they have to pay a higher tuition; important programs that assisted them in financial aid are being cut. Former SAAS student Leandra Ordorica states “SAAS has helped me find resources to be able to pay for UCI. Every time I applied for a scholarship, there was always someone there to write me a letter of recommendation.” These small amenities make the largest impact on the low-income students where finances are constantly a concern. Not only did the SAAS program assist in finding low-income students scholarships, “each counselor sat down personally with a student to see what their specific needs and goals were. After assessing each individuals students ambitions, they would personally find a type of aid that fit their specific needs,” according to Deborah Lee.

The office of the student Regent (an undergraduate who serves on the UC board) liveblogged today's Regents panel vote.  From the first post on the event:

9:35AM – [UC systemwide president] Mark Yudof is trying give his board report, but the crowd keeps interruppting and booing him.  the chant is “take a stand.” yudof: “regents have to act.  in the end of the day, it’s your job to blaance the budget.  the budget on the table is the only budget out there that will balance the budget.”  Yudof ends his speech early – asks the people that are distrubing the meeting to leave or be removed form the room.  police have just entered the room and are waiting for the protesters to remove themselves.  students please be safe!

These tuition increases are coming at a time when the UC campuses are actually reducing the number of courses they're offering, and when the quality of education at the university is at serious risk of deterioration.  UC is firing lecturers (contingent laborers, unlike tenured faculty) in droves, and the professoriate is loath to pick up the classes the lecturers had been scheduled to teach.  Worse, although UC may now authentically say that undergraduates have more contact hours with honest-to-goodness professors, many of these professors have not taught large classes (and large-enrollment courses of hundreds of students are increasingly replacing smaller ones, tripling or more the size of some classes) for a very long time.  Teaching very large classes is an art that few have mastered; after all, how does one employ best practices in undergraduate learning (e.g. interaction with and among students, activities, ongoing assessment) in a class of more than 500 students?

Democracy Now recently convened a discussion with a number of UC stakeholders to help people better understand the crisis.  I think Professor Ananya Roy of UC Berkeley's department of Department of City and Regional Planning put it best:

I think there is a very real crisis in California, where continuing budget cuts have devastated the infrastructure of public education, and we have a governor who continues to call for deeper and deeper budget cuts, even though there is nothing left to cut. So we’re clearly fighting for the ideal of public education. We’re fighting for the opportunity of Californians and Americans to get a decent education. But we’re also fighting for the future of our particular university, the UC system, and we’re fighting to be represented by leaders who believe in and can defend the mission of public education.

That bit about leaders may be a reference to UC President Mark Yudof's interview in The New York Times, which is widely regarded by UC denizens as both a disaster and symptomatic of the UC administration's profound misunderstanding of the history and values of public higher education in California.  In that interview, Yudof said he feels like the "manager of a cemetery," admitted he gets about a $10,000/month housing stipend from the UC (his total compensation package is $828,000/year), and admits he doesn't know how he got into education: "It's all an accident," he explained.

In response to that interview, two Berkeley professors wrote a letter to the NYT that included these paragraphs:

These missions of access, excellence and vision have been the essence of California’s Master Plan for Education since 1960. Yudof also says that he fell into education as a profession by “accident.” In contrast, each of us came to Berkeley deliberately, because we believe in the importance of the public research university as an institution — one that provides an outstanding education that is accessible and affordable. We are proud that for decades, our students have gone on to become the next generation of educators, researchers, business developers and public servants.

Yudof’s joking remarks about finance speak to the lack of vision and leadership in his administration. As faculty, we fear that it is not only our present but our collective future that is being destroyed. We need executives who will do more than preside over the collapse of the finest public university system in the world.

In the Democracy Now discussion, moderator Amy Goodman asked Laura Nader, a professor of sociocultural anthropology at UC Berkeley, to explain what she meant by a call for transparency in the UC budget--and suggests it's time for the university to reconsider its priorities:

LAURA NADER: We need transparency about such things as intercollegiate sports, which is a problem all over the country. And Brian Barsky and Alice Agogino, these are people in computer studies and engineering, they can add the figures, and the figures don’t make sense.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

LAURA NADER: The figures, it’s supposed to be—intercollegiate is supposed to bring in money to the university.

AMY GOODMAN: Sports.

LAURA NADER: In fact, they’re in debt, intercollegiate sports. So we’re subsidizing, the student fees are subsidizing intercollegiate sports. And we’re closing libraries. So we had—the libraries are supposed to be closed on Saturdays. There were some students that sat in, professors that spoke. And a wonderful donor, anonymous, gave money to keep the libraries open on Saturday, but the university didn’t fall into line and open the libraries on Saturday. So these are issues of transparency and accountability, fiscal accountability, that are very important today.

Because I earned three graduate degrees from the UC over a period of seven years, taught undergraduates and graduate students at the UC, and have served as a staff member there for more than three years, I've been around the UC block once or twice.  But I've never seen anything like this, nor felt such an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger at any of the five other universities where I've worked or been a student.  One word comes to mind again and again: clusterfuck.  It's the perfect compound word for the situation.

Really, there's no one person or agency to blame for getting us into this mess, but there are definitely people and offices and agencies who could be working more thoughtfully and transparently to get us out of it.  Because a 32 percent tuition increase in a single year?  That's criminal.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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