Student perspective: The rising price of education
on March 3, 2010
This week, I will finish paying my second installment of rent for the semester, after which my bank account will be $4 overdrawn. I also have an outstanding credit card payment, but that will have to wait. Don’t call me irresponsible—I have a job and I don’t spend a single penny more than I need to. It’s just that, last semester, I thought I had more loans offered to me then I needed. Thinking, “the less debt when I graduate, the better,” I accepted only a small portion of the loans at first, then later took on a little more as “cushion” money so that I could pay my rent early. I also thought it’d be nice to work a little less this semester than I did last semester. I’m a second year undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying English and, with graduate school in mind, I wanted to start focusing more on academics. Well, when student fees got hiked up 15 percent this semester, what I thought would be extra money was swallowed by registration fees, campus fees, education fees and more fees—fees, fees, fees. Before I knew it, I had nothing left and I still owed the University of California $17.
So, where do these fee hikes come from? You’re probably quick to blame the economy and that’s certainly a factor. Naturally, cuts in state funding to the UC schools translates into cuts to the services offered by the UCs — that means fewer classes are available to students and libraries are closed on days they used to be open. If the state is taking less responsibility for UC funding, the students must take on more; but whether the students must take on the planned 32 percent more over this semester and the next one is debatable.
A 32 percent increase is huge—it’s like taking out a mortgage for a house, then being told your house is going to cost a third more than the price you were originally told. Granted, a fee hike may be necessary right now, but it would be unhealthy for the university to count on students to fill the gaps in its budget year in and year out. These fee hikes may well be completely due to a drop in state funding, but they’re more likely due to a combination of the state funding decrease and inefficiencies in the UC financial model. Increasing student fees may help for one year, but to find a lasting solution that prevents the need for fee hikes, the structure through which state funding and student fee money are funneled must be scrutinized and reformed.
Yet figuring out how the university spends state funding and student fees is more confusing than filing FAFSA, the student financial aid form, for the first time. According to UC officials, money from students and the state are combined as a source of revenue. UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Charles Schwartz, who has been researching UC finances since the early 1990s, said on February 2 at a public presentation on the campus’ finances by Berkeley’s Associate Vice Chancellor Erin Gore that there is no way to find out exactly where student fee money goes. However different types of funding are spent, reorganization of the UC’s financial model and its priorities could probably mitigate student fee hikes and decrease cuts to student programs.
While inefficiencies in the UC’s current financial structure may contribute to the magnitude of problems faced by students, some critics of the fee hike argue that the UC Regents have ulterior motives for raising fees. In an open letter titled “They Pledged Your Tuition” political science professor Bob Meister at UC Santa Cruz asserts that decreased state funding and increased student fees are a boon to the UC’s bond rating. He says student fees are being used as collateral to sell bonds that fund things like the renovation of the Clark Kerr dormitories. “Since 2004, UC has based its financial planning on the growing confidence of bond markets that your tuition will increase,” he writes. “Why? Because you’ve put up with this so far, and because UC has no other plan. Its capacity to raise tuition is advertised in every bond prospectus.”
As for me, I figured school was going to be expensive, but I didn’t expect student fees to increase about 45 percent in a year and a half. Last semester saw a 9.3 percent fee hike and fees are going up an additional 32 percent between now and fall. When students say they aren’t sure they can afford school anymore, they aren’t exaggerating and they have a right to be angry.
I’m sure you’ve heard the chorus, “We’re paying more for less.” Aside from struggling to make rent and eat well at the end of the school day, students along with faculty and staff at Berkeley are facing the concrete results of less money to go around on campus. On the first day of class last semester, one of my professors informed people in his class that they had better call him within the next week if they wanted to call him at all, because the phone number he gave at the top of the syllabus would be useless after the English department shut off its phone service. Many departments are now without basic office utilities such as phone service — I heard of one that only has a single toner cartridge for the semester.
But these are just the little things. Students are receiving two less weeks of instruction this year, all but one library is closed on Saturdays, and fewer classes are being offered each semester, lengthening wait-lists and pushing estimated graduation dates ever further into the future. Even if you’re of the philosophy that higher education is a privilege and not a right, you have to concede that nobody expected the UC budget crisis. What’s chilling is that many of the changes resulting from the current situation may never be reversed.
When the possibility of a 32 percent fee hike was announced, my first response was to go online and research schools I could potentially transfer to, particularly schools known for excellent financial aid packages. However, having already completed nearly two years at UC Berkeley and being on track to graduate at the end of my junior year, I’ve decided I’m going to stay. Even graduating a year early, though, won’t save me from the effects of the increase. I’ll leave school with more debt than I’d like to and I still don’t know exactly how that will affect me down the road. I don’t know if that extra debt will mean I can’t travel until I’ve been in a steady job for a while, if it will limit my graduate school options or if it will hurt my credit rating and make it hard for me to eventually buy a house or make another large investment. All I can do is take out more loans and hope I can pay them off one day.
Tess Townsend is a sophomore at UC Berkeley studying English literature. She wrote for the Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student newspaper, for a year and covered the local schools beat, which sparked her interest in public education. Currently, Tess is working with a group of students researching the UC budget crisis. Her main focus is UC financial records, which she is combing through with some of her peers in order to “translate” the records and make them more readable for the average student. Her blog for this project can be found at caledinsider.org. Tess has been hearing a lot of buzz about the March 4th protests, which some members of the student research group helped organize, and looks forward to engaging in the day’s events.
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