The three students who vote on the governing boards of California’s three gigantic systems of higher education say they want to focus attention this year on the costs of housing and textbooks.
While tuition will not increase for the 2018-19 school year, those other costs of living and study are increasingly major burdens to many students, according to the students who will be able to vote on such issues at the California Community Colleges’ Board of Governors, the California State University’s Board of Trustees and the University of California’s Board of Regents.
They all want to push for more financial aid, especially as the rent for off-campus apartments is no longer always a cheaper alternative to dormitory fees and textbook costs can discourage students from taking important classes. The student leaders also said they want to help boost ethnic diversity among students, faculty and staff and to improve transfer and graduation rates.
“I see the biggest issues are the basic needs of our students and housing security and trying to get more resources to address those needs,” said Emily Hinton, who recently became the voting student trustee at the Cal State system.
While the housing markets vary widely around the state, Hinton said she wants to make sure that all Cal State campuses have emergency housing options and loans available to students while more long-range solutions are developed.
To get a sense of students’ concerns for the upcoming school year, EdSource spoke to Hinton and her counterparts: UC student regent Devon Lomes Graves and community colleges board student representative Alexander Walker–Griffin. Of the nearly 2.4 million students enrolled in California’s public higher education systems, they have a role in guiding statewide policies this year on such important issues as tuition, financial aid, the availability of mental health counseling and reforms aimed at improving chances of transferring from a community college to a four-year school and then graduating on time.
But it also puts them in a hot seat, as middlemen between the administrations and the enormous student bodies at the ten UC campuses, 23 Cal State campuses and 114 community colleges.
The three student leaders followed long-term practice by first serving last year as non-voting members on their boards and then recently becoming voting members for the second and final year of their terms. Their initial paths varied somewhat. A UC regents committee accepts applicants for the student position and its nomination is sent to the full 26-member board. The Cal State Student Association nominates between two and five names to the governor, who then selects one to join that 25-member trustee board. And the governor directly names the student voices to the 17-member community college panel.
“I feel it is really the student trustee’s responsibility to bring the student perspective to the board, not only at the meetings but also in one on one interactions, to help them understand the student experience,” said Hinton, who is 22, grew up in Modesto and attends Sonoma State as a double major in philosophy and political science.
In addition, a student representative on a governing board must be able to explain official policies and actions to students “so they have a better understanding of how the board works, how the budget works and how student dollars are being used,” said Hinton, who previously was president of Sonoma State’s student government.
The concern about living costs after tuition was echoed by UC regent Graves, who is a doctoral student at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, studying higher education and organizational change. UC tuition actually is declining by $60 this year. “Even if tuition won’t rise this year, housing is a huge issue on our campuses and students are grappling with it every single day. As you know, some of our UC campuses are located in some of the most expensive places in California and students are impacted greatly by trying to survive and find a place to live,” said Graves, who is 25 and from Murrieta in Riverside County.
He earned his bachelor’s degree at Cal Poly Pomona and was the statewide chair of the Cal State student association. He served on the California Student Aid Commission and is researching ways to improve community college financial aid.
Graves advocates a partnership between state government and UC to build more affordable housing on and off campus as well as looking at ways to bolster financial aid to better cover housing costs.
The student leaders are not alone in their concerns. The state Student Aid Commission is working on a study about student living costs and how that might lead to changes in student aid.
Graves, who is black, also said that UC needs to work harder to increase its number of students and faculty from Latino, African-American, Southeast Asian and Native American communities. He said that the enrollment rates of African-Americans at UC are “abysmal” — African-American males comprise just 1.5 percent of UC undergraduates and black women 2.4 percent. While the state law bans the use of affirmative action or the use of racial quotas in admissions and hiring, he said faculty and staff should be better trained about how to avoid implicit bias and how to recruit more diverse pools of candidates, especially among under-represented minorities and low-income students.
He urged the university to “do all we can to go out to K-12 schools that serve those communities and make sure we educate families and students on what it takes to be eligible to attend the University of California. “
At the community colleges’ statewide Board of Governors, Walker-Griffin said he wants to push discussion this year on ways to reduce the costs of textbooks. While community college tuition is the lowest in the nation and is often covered fully by state grants, textbook prices scare away some students and hurt their abilities to do well in classes, he said. Walker-Griffin proposes more state aid focused on buying books in bulk for in-demand required courses and then renting them at low cost to students or creating a free revolving library. He also wants to stop faculty from assigning books they wrote unless they are drastically different from cheaper existing texts.
Walker-Griffin sees his role in part as an advocate for the schools, persuading families around the state that community colleges are an excellent place to begin higher education. Too often, he said, people focus on UC and CSU but “community colleges are left out… or anytime a conversation comes up about a community college, it’s usually pretty negative.” He said such reputations are undeserved and that potential students should learn more about the low costs, flexibility and convenience of community colleges — “especially if you are not one hundred percent sure at first of what you want to do in terms of a major or what you want to do beyond college.”
The student body president at Contra Costa College, Walker-Griffin is studying political science. Extending political engagement beyond school, Walker-Griffin is now running for a seat on the city council of Hercules, his hometown in Contra Costa County northeast of San Francisco. If elected to the city council, the 20-year-old said he would be able to juggle those responsibilities along with those on the state board and his campus presidency.
Walker-Griffin, who also is African-American, said he wants to represent all students but especially to “give people of unrepresented communities a voice.”
As a candidate for transfer to a UC or private college next spring, Walker Griffin said he understands how many students have found the transfer process to be confusing and difficult. So he said he welcomes the new associate degrees for transfer that lay out a set of courses and guarantee admission to Cal State in some majors and the so-called guided pathways that will provide similar advantages to some UC programs next year. He said he wants to monitor how well those transfer programs work but that initial feedback is positive. “I think it’s going to help a lot of people out, certainly there will be less confusion, less time and less money being spent on classes you don’t need,” he said.