Looking into the UC tuition hike

Recently in The Daily Californian, former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau argued that tuition should increase to help low-income students. He worried “frozen tuition means ever-increasing debt for low-income students.”

It’s an interesting contrast — what’s very bad for most students is supposedly good for the lowest-income students. Was it planned that way? We are waiting for Birgeneau to rally the poorest students and occupy some buildings to demand the “unfreezing” of tuition.

Not to be outdone, Associate Chancellor Nils Gilman has echoed the argument about low-income students needing a tuition increase and added another: Rumors of high administration costs and excess executive compensation are untrue “myths.”

I will present an alternative view — first, regarding the argument that escalating tuition helps economically struggling students. While raising tuition may increase the pool of funds available to help some low-income students, overall, it causes more students to go deeper into debt. As shown on projectonstudentdebt.org, over the past eight years, the percentage of students taking loans and the amount of debt has steadily increased. Average debt has risen 33 percent at UC Berkeley, 68 percent at UC Santa Cruz, 57 percent at UC Davis, etc.

Higher tuition also leads to increasing state expenses for student aid. A newspaper article titled “University of California: The Hidden Cost of Tuition Hikes” describes what happened: “While the state made nearly $1 billion in cuts to the UC system between 2008 and 2012, an analysis of student aid shows the state at the same time increased UC’s Cal Grant awards by nearly $400 million to help students cover their rapidly rising tuition bills.”

Regarding Gilman’s assertion that excess executive compensation is a “myth,” the report he refers to reveals that faculty compensation has been flat but makes no such claim about administration. If there were a claim, it would surely find that University of California executive compensation has skyrocketed. Let’s start at the top. In 2005, former UC president Robert Dynes’ salary was $395,000. Former UC president Mark Yudof received a near 50-percent salary increase — to $591,000. Yudof declined to live in the University house and the subsequent housing fiasco proved additionally expensive.

Leaders set examples, so other top-administrator salaries have jumped. The UC Berkeley chancellor salary has gone from $315,000 in 2004 to its current $486,000, a 54-percent increase. The UC Davis chancellor salary has jumped from $280,000 in 2004 to $400,000.  The salaries are publicly visible on this website.

As noted, UC faculty salaries have barely kept up with inflation during the past decade. Many other educators have seen salary declines. For example, the top salary for a Berkeley high school teacher with a master’s degree that required 36 or more units or a doctorate and 20 or more years of experience was $70,400 in 2004 and is now $84,900 — just over a 20-percent increase and less than inflation (27 percent from 2004 to 2014).

The situation regarding pensions is even more striking. UC administration persists in ignoring UC policy by awarding ultrarich pensions to retiring senior administrators. The most clear-cut example again is Yudof. After just five years as president of the university, he was awarded a lifetime pension of $230,000. Presumably, he is also receiving a pension from the University of Texas, where he worked much longer. By comparison, Rep. George Miller from the East Bay is retiring from Congress — after being there for 40 years — with an annual pension of $125,000.

The problem with excess executive pensions are threefold: 1) The excess payments continue for years and decades. 2) They set a bad example. 3) They undermine the ability of the university to argue in Sacramento for more funds. Beyond that, they provide ammunition to right-wing forces that attack the concept of public pensions.

Some people will point to “the market” and college leaders whose salaries are even more excessive. Yes, the corporatization of education is a nationwide trend. But that does not make it right or necessary.

One group that seems to benefit from tuition increase is the student-loan industry. It advances its education-reform strategy through the private Lumina Foundation.

Created at the merger of USA Group with Student Loan Marketing in 2000, Lumina designates about $50 million per year to influencing academic accrediting, policy and lobby organizations. For example, they provided substantial grants to the infamous American Legislative Exchange Council pushing for right-wing education “reforms” in Wisconsin and beyond. In the Bay Area, Lumina has been a major funder of the private agency, threatening to remove accreditation from City College of San Francisco, which currently serves 75,000 students and has a well-proven record of education success. Lumina generally promotes a corporate model in education and produces analyses that subtly argue against low tuition.

Lumina is well represented by the university, because Yudof has been a compensated Lumina board member for many years. That would appear to be a conflict of interest, at least during the years when he was UC president and initiating dramatic tuition increases.

The university community needs to continue pressing the state government for increased funding. At the same time, students are right to demand a freeze on tuition and transparency in university accounting.  Students, faculty and the public will be better served when university leaders reject the corporate model.

Rick Sterling is a retired senior engineer at the Space Sciences Laboratory.

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