Failing the First Priority

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The UC system is reaching out to students with a handshake, but its so-called deal could cost students up to an additional $3,372 in tuition over the next five years.

Over the past few months, University of California President Janet Napolitano has hinted at the possibility of a tuition increase. The moment has now come, as the announcement of a five-year plan for “low and predictable” tuition will be voted on next week at the UC Regents meeting on Nov. 19. The plan is meant to address the current deficit between revenue and expenses for the next academic year.

The plan is supposed to provide “sustainability” and end the “volatility in UC’s tuition-setting process” but more than anything it shows a discrepancy between administrators’ and students’ ideas of affordability.

While student panic faded during a three-year tuition freeze, tuition increases are nothing new, with tuition doubling from the early ‘90s to 1995 to about $4,000, and tripling from the beginning of the millennium to its current average of over $12,000. Tuition raises reveal a reliance on a normalized thinking that raising tuition is the only fix. After being denied an additional $120 million from the state, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) decided to threaten the state by asserting a willingness to take the money from its students.

UCOP and the state government tell us that the state’s divestment in the university is barely the UC’s problem and definitely not the state’s problem. Rather, it’s our problem, and students continue to carry the financial burden that the state refuses to address.

The normalized way of thinking allows the UC Regents — a group comprised mostly of politicians, chief executive officers, lawyers and board members of corporations — to make decisions about how much students will be paying for education rather than researching alternative funding sources, organizing to lobby the state or cutting administrators’ pay.

Students have little agency over the decisions made by the UC Regents, and the most striking example is our lack of representation — one student Regent representing more than 230,000 students. One student voice in a room of 25 other individuals who are decades removed from the undergraduate and graduate experience and who undoubtedly benefited from a more affordable university experience than our own.

No matter how gifted, strong or conscious UC student Regent Sadia Saifuddin may be, she cannot possibly speak for every issue students face. Even if she could, she is dramatically outnumbered.

The UC believes “moderate” increases to tuition will allow families to plan ahead and prevent the student uproar we saw in 2011 after a 17 percent tuition increase, but students are already organizing to demonstrate that the increase is not welcome.

UCOP boasts its “robust financial aid” assistance in which 55 percent of students don’t pay tuition. That still leaves more than 100,000 students who are only partially covered or not covered at all. Most often it’s the middle class students who are left with significant loans to finish their four-to-six-year degrees.

The Regents attempted to rationalize the tuition increase by bringing inflation into the argument. However, after adjusting data for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, it is revealed that the financial burden on families and students at the UC’s as of 2011 is 4.41 times greater than in 1975.

The UC’s price comparison to other private institutions is not comforting. The UC should stand as a beacon for other universities to model after, and not simply settle for comparisons. This hyperinflation — relative to the general cost of living — of our tuition and fees beginning in the early ‘90s is evidence of a system so poisoned by greed it seeks to leech off the very people it claims to serve.

Universities are supposed to foster innovation, drive economies and, most importantly, educate our generation’s leaders on how to address present and future issues, but this mission stagnates if our present and future concerns are focused on our mountain of debt.

Two months ago, the UC Regents approved salary increases for four UC chancellors, three of which received 20 percent more annually. They assert that the increases are correcting “injustices” and are necessary for the UC to remain competitive, but if a chancellor would threaten to leave if they didn’t receive a pay increase, we should hold the door for them and say “good riddance.”

Why? A person who assumes the responsibilities of a UC Regent or chancellor needs to be hired for his or her passion to serve its student body, the young leaders of today, and the seasoned leaders of tomorrow.

Students should be prioritized, and “investing in the future” shouldn’t mean students taking on more loans with high interest rates. Student loan debt has reached an all-time high at $1.2 trillion, an 84 percent jump since the recession. The more students are burdened with debt and unable to pay it the more our economy will suffer, as students will be forced to pay debts they could otherwise be investing in our communities.

Napolitano said the 5 percent is a ceiling and the increase could be lowered or eliminated if the state provides additional funds above the UC’s base budget adjustment. What comes next will likely continue to tell the public what we already know — the state’s priorities aren’t focused on its students.