During her presidential remarks at the November meeting of the UC Board of Regents, UC President Janet Napolitano announced her proposal to freeze tuition for the 2014-15 academic year. The proposal follows years of volatile and exponential fee increases. Since 2008-09, the UC system has raised its residential undergraduate tuition from $6,202 to $11,160, a whopping 80 percent increase in four short years. Tuition increases have major ramifications as well; although the university prides itself on the number of Pell Grant recipients who attend college here (UC Berkeley alone has more Pell Grant recipients than all of the Ivy League combined), the pressure often falls on the middle class. In the absence of scholarships and grants, many students are forced to find other sources of income to fund their education, often resulting in multiple jobs and loans with exorbitant interest rates that only deepen the student debt crisis.
While another year of frozen tuition seems like a win-win, the existence of our return-to-aid system creates a trade-off between access for underrepresented communities and families that can more easily afford a UC education. The return-to-aid system ties financial aid dollars to tuition; one third of tuition dollars go back into the system to serve as financial aid for low-income students. This means that if tuition does not increase, neither does financial aid. The good news is that low-income students pay no tuition regardless of increases, but the same cannot be said for all students. At a time when the UC system should be expanding its resources to ensure that all students have adequate resources to attend, the return-to-aid system remains a barrier to this vision.
Luckily, the Middle Class Scholarship Act, introduced by California State Assembly Speaker John Perez will help to alleviate this burden. The state will continue increasing the plan’s funding until it is fully implemented by 2017-18. Coupled with Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of freezing tuition until 2016-17, it seems the state is making big moves in support of public higher education. Yet tuition volatility is still a major concern; instead of taking it year by year, the university needs to begin developing a holistic plan for meeting the university’s financial goals in the long term. While a tuition freeze now is welcomed by students and the regents alike, we must also think about future prospects: Will the regents raise tuition by 20 or 30 percent to make up for past years of tuition freezes? Will the state continue to support education not just in its words but also in its actions? The tuition freeze is predicated on state support through Proposition 30, which brought in an extra $129 million to the state. Students should be lobbying legislators to continue supporting the UC system and demonstrating a long-term dedication to our public universities and not becoming complacent because of a one-time tuition freeze.
It’s time to move past the obvious. UC tuition is high and continues to remain at unacceptable levels. Proposing a tangible solution to the crisis is a more effective form of advocacy. Campaigns such as IGNITE (Invest in Graduation, Not Incarceration; Transform Education) and reforming Proposition 13 grapple with the state’s murky priorities of disinvestment from higher education. Why is it that the state pays for the pension plans of employees of California State University and Community Colleges while the University of California must pay its own? If the UC system were able to use those funds to reinvest in students and their resources, the university would be one step closer to solving its budget problems. Sure, it may not be sexy to hold up picket signs about pension plans, but that is one very viable source of funding that can make a difference in the budget.
Every student who attends the UC system has a responsibility to be critical of this institution of power. It is undeniable that each of us has a privilege in being able to access higher education, but this privilege can easily be denied to our progeny if we do not act now to save it. It’s time to look beyond the “victory” of a tuition freeze and analyze sustainable plans to stabilize tuition levels.
Sadia Saifuddin is the UC student-regent designate.