The approval Wednesday of a $270 tuition increase, or about 5 percent, for undergraduates at the California State University system has raised debate over affordability and access across its 23 campuses.
Student activists say they fear higher costs will force low- and middle-income students to reduce their class hours – or even withdraw for a term – to earn more money, while administrators predict educational improvements funded by the extra revenue will allow students to earn their degrees faster and with less cost and debt.
In approving the first tuition hike in six years, the CSU trustees noted that about 60 percent of undergraduates now have their tuition fully covered by financial aid programs and promised larger grants would cover the $270 increase for them. About $38 million from the increase is to go toward boosting financial aid and $77.5 million will fund, among other projects, hiring new faculty, adding courses and bolstering counseling in efforts to improve the graduation rates and shorten students’ time to a degree, they said.
However, student protesters said that large numbers of CSU’s 470,000 students are not eligible for full aid and that the high costs of housing, food and transportation have become worrisome burdens for which even full tuition aid provides scant relief.
David Lopez, president of the California State Student Association, said that many students are struggling already to make ends meet, especially with high rental costs in urban areas. Many are pulled between their studies and their jobs, and many have family responsibilities as well, he said. So even if CSU does add courses to make it easier to graduate on time, that will not ease money worries term by term.
“Affordability is one of the key aspects of a student’s ability to achieve academically. These goals would be much more difficult to achieve with students facing more challenging financial circumstances in the form of a tuition increase,” Lopez said.
Despite such pleas from students and others not to end the long tuition freeze, the trustees voted 11-8 for the increase after two hours of debate. Under the plan approved Wednesday, undergraduate tuition for a full-time student from California would rise in fall 2017 to $5,742 a year, not including campus fees, housing and books. (Undergraduates taking six or fewer credits would pay $3,330, up $156.) Full-time graduate students would see a $438 annual increase, to $7,176 annually.
Trustees added an amendment that the hike would be automatically rescinded if the state Legislature later this spring fully funds the $167 million gap between what CSU is seeking for next year from the state budget and what Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent proposal, while higher than the current year, would provide.
University administrators, however, made it clear that they could not count on any big funding bump from the Legislature and that they needed a way to pay for additional classes, increased enrollment, building maintenance, higher salaries for faculty and staff, and the rising costs of employee pensions and health benefits. They said that tuition money would help CSU’s campaign to improve the systemwide four-year completion rate for first-time freshmen from the current 19 percent to 40 percent and the six-year rate from 57 percent to 70 percent by 2025.
“I don’t bring this forward with an ounce of joy,” system Chancellor Timothy P. White said in urging passage of the tuition increase. “I bring it out of necessity. We need resources to fulfill our commitment to our students and to California and Californians.”
The meeting was often interrupted by noisy protests from students who wore graduation caps and gowns to dramatize the moment. They often chanted “the more we pay, the longer we stay,” a reference to their expectation that they will have to drag out their education longer to afford increased costs.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is a trustee by virtue of his office, urged the board to vote against the increase and to put the responsibility for more funding on the Legislature and governor. “It’s not just about resources. It’s about resourcefulness,” Newsom said. Otherwise, he said, the university would “be doing the bidding of the Legislature and the governor.” He turned to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who is also a trustee, and said: “I don’t want to let you off the hook. I don’t want to let the governor off the hook.”
During the public debate, Rendon, D-Paramount, did not offer any details on possibly increasing funding for higher education. But he joined those voting against the tuition increase and said he found it “absurd and grotesque” that a tuition hike was being approved a week after he and other Democratic legislators proposed a plan to sharply increase financial aid for an estimated 400,000 CSU and University of California students and reduce their loan burdens. Among those joining him and Newsom in voting no was state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
Later in a statement, Rendon said he would work for “a stable and appropriate funding level without overburdening students – especially those who are unable to pay their rent or maintain a consistent source of food.”
Trustee Peter Taylor, who chairs the board’s finance committee and voted for the tuition increase, said he resented that state underfunding was squeezing the university both on student access and educational quality. Without the extra revenue from the increase, he said, students in the future “will not receive the quality of education they deserve. But quality costs money.”
CSU officials emphasized that CSU will remain a relative bargain compared with similar universities nationwide, although students protest that the cost of living is higher here. Administrators also noted that the share of students who borrow for school costs and loan debts is substantially lower than the national and state averages. About 49 percent of CSU students borrow for school and their average loans total $14,388, compared with national rates of 69 percent and $28,950 in loans and statewide rates of 55 percent and $21,382 in loans.
The CSU increase follows the example of the UC, which in January also increased undergraduate tuition for the first time in six years for next fall – a $336, or 2.7 percent, hike that university officials said is needed to expand enrollment and faculty. UC’s tuition and mandatory systemwide fees for state resident undergraduates will be $12,630 in 2017-18. With room, board, books and campus-based fees, the total cost is often about $30,000. Critics contend the UC increase will limit access for students and scare away some applicants.
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