CAREERS AND ED When the University of California Board of Regents met Nov. 17, 2010 to approve an 8 percent tuition hike, roughly 300 UC students who were furious about the decision converged outside the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) campus at Mission Bay to rally in opposition, some traveling from as far away as Los Angeles.
"We had been organizing with all the campuses to get students to come up because we really wanted to be there to let them know that it's not what we want, and it's something they can't just get away with doing year after year," said UC Student Association President Claudia Magana. The protests were raucous, and police cracked down by discharging pepper spray and making 13 arrests.
Despite the palpable fury outside and impassioned student opposition delivered to the Regents inside, the 8 percent fee increase was approved. It came on the heels of a 32 percent tuition increase imposed the year before, and the price was ratcheted up by 9 percent and 7 percent in the years prior to that.
The tuition hikes were steep, but hardly new. Indeed, the cost of attending UC schools has been rising steadily for quite a while. According to a study by economist Peter Donohue, student tuition and fees increased 277 percent from 1990-91 to 2008-09, and that was prior to the 40 percent increase that followed. That trend is repeated in rising costs at the California State University and California Community College systems (See "Access Denied," April 6, 2010).
Student protesters have sought to make it clear that their outrage isn't rooted in selfish unwillingness to shell out more money, but instead is linked to a broader concern about privatization and the increasingly limited accessibility of public education.
Magana expressed concern that the climbing cost of instruction at UC, though still a relative bargain compared with private institutions, would ultimately start to affect who could and couldn't attain higher education through the public university system. The question isn't limited to UC — tuition is increasing at public and private colleges across the board, and as income inequality sharpens, more students seek higher education.
"Students will always pay to be here," she noted. "The issue is going to be, which students are here? That's really the big problem — the huge class issue that's going to come up. Although there are some forms of support for low-income students, it's not easy."
DEEPER IN DEBT
Rising costs at UC mirror the upward trend at private nonprofit and for-profit postsecondary institutions nationwide, and those higher prices have triggered a dramatic increase in student borrowing. While students from low- or medium-income families can access higher education at any institution they're admitted to as long as they're willing to take out significant sums in student loans, many find themselves at a serious disadvantage once they have to start repaying their debt.
A study conducted by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) noted that hefty debt burdens often dissuade graduates from pursuing careers in teaching, social work, the nonprofit sector, or other low-paying occupations that foster social justice. PIRG found that 23 percent of public four-year college grads and 38 percent of private four-year college grads were saddled with too much debt to manage paying back student loans on a starting teacher's salary.
For students pursuing careers as social workers, the economic bind looked even worse: 37 percent of public school grads and 55 percent of private school grads with student loans wouldn't be able to manage repayment with starting salaries in that field, the study concluded.