New financial pain looms for UC students

Students at the University of California, already battered by spiraling fees, face yet another hit on their wallets.

UC is set to raise student fees an additional 15 percent for both graduates and undergraduates when classes begin in September. On top of last January’s 15 percent increase, the new fee hike means resident undergraduates will be paying 32 percent more in fees for their education than they were a year ago – a boost of $1,334 per quarter.

“The impact is huge,” says Caitlin Emmons, a third-year student at UC Santa Cruz. Emmons says she had hoped to go to law school after getting her degree, but will be forced to enter the workforce immediately in order to pay off her debt. “We’re talking more than $10,000 in extra student loans by the time I graduate,” she points out.

While UC student fees have been increasing steadily for the past two decades, the current increase represents a particularly dramatic spike – perhaps the largest in the University’s history to take place in such a short period of time.

In its 2010-11 budget request, UC said it would “revisit fee levels for 2010-11” if state funding requests were met.

The Legislature has approved the governor’s plan to restore $305 million of last year’s general fund cut to UC, as well as $51.3 million in additional funds to accommodate for the growth in enrollment which has taken place since 2008-09 in spite of consistently reduced funding.

These reinvestments, however, fall well short of the UC’s $902 million budget request, which includes $155 million for preserving the last two years’ unfunded enrollment growth. The new fees are expected to raise a little over $500 million, bringing total UC funding to 2007-08 levels but not completely covering the University’s billion-dollar deficit.

UC, the jewel of the state’s higher-education system, has been one of the major casualties of the recession and the state’s financial crisis.

In 2004, the governor signed an agreement with UC called the Higher Education Compact, which laid out the amount of funding the UC would receive for the next six years, providing for a 2.5 percent per year growth in total enrollments.

But full funding as promised by the Compact has not come through since the 2007-08 state budget, despite rising costs and a growing student body.

The state cut $814 million from UC’s 2008-09 budget and $637 million from 2009-10. A $716 million cash infusion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama’s federal stimulus package, covered some of the gap but the rest has been accommodated for with spending cuts, salary reductions, and fee hikes.

The most recent of these cuts have prompted campus protests by the UC students themselves. In March, demonstrators at UC Davis disrupted classes and blocked a freeway ramp near the campus.

The recent hikes have also drawn attention to what some critics describe as the privatization of the state’s public universities. From 1990 to last year, the amount of general funding per student the UC has received from the state has nearly halved, while the students’ share of this burden has tripled.

“The attitude seems to be that if we make enough cuts, raise tuition enough, and reduce the number of students, we can still be a great university, though a smaller private one,” said George Lakoff, a professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley. “It is an illusion.”

The UC system has long been a point of pride for the state of California as a world-class institution of higher education accessible to low-income students. By transferring more of the costs from taxpayers to students, a UC education becomes prohibitively expensive for more potential students.

Yet, as the Legislative Analyst’s Office points out, the University of California is still a relatively good deal.

“Despite fee increases,” says the LAO’s summary of the 2010-11 budget, “fees at all three segments [UC, CSU, and Community Colleges] remain below national or comparison group averages.” This means the cost to the student at the University of California is still lower than at most other public universities, even after the hikes.

And while the 32 percent hike might make the UC unattainable for some students paying out of their own pockets, other measures have in some respects limited the damage to lower-income families.

“What the University has strived to do,” said UC spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez, “is have a very robust financial aid program to mitigate the impact of higher fees.” One -third of the revenues from student fees are dedicated to financial aid. The minimum family income level, under which qualified applicants from resident California families are not required to pay their own student fees, has been raised from $60,000 per year to $70,000 per year.

“I got lucky, because I could pay for my whole freshman year with state money,” says Jocelyn Robinson, a second-year UC student. “That covers the fee increase too, so it hasn’t really affected me like it has some people.”

Even if the levels of UC funding currently proposed in the budget bill remain as they are, the UC’s revenues, including the revenues from the fee hike, will still be $237 million short of expenditures after debt restructuring. President Mark Yudof’s 2009-10 furlough plan to cut salaries expires in August, and he has stated his commitment to preventing further furloughs in 2010-11. But without more money from the state or further fee hikes, it remains unclear how else the University will bridge this gap.

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