Fee hikes are not inevitable

    As hundreds of people descended on Price Center Feb. 17 to protest the newest round of UC fee hikes, the debate raged over whether such fee hikes are a necessary response to California’s budget crisis or a bad policy that will undermine the quality of the UC system.

    In his State of the State Address on Jan. 6, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had no shortage of justifications for his proposed fee hikes. UC fees have already been raised 40 percent over the last two years, and Schwarzenegger sought to put a positive spin on his additional increases by saying, “We must end the boom-and-bust cycle of widely fluctuating fees with a predictable, capped fee policy for college students and their parents. And we must limit fee increases to no more than 10 percent a year.”

    In short, Schwarzenegger tried to present a 10-percent annual fee increase as some sort of favor, as if unprecedented fee hikes are inevitable. Yet, UC faculty members aren’t being paid more and the costs to provide a UC education aren’t being pushed upwards; why should students pay more for the same service we received much cheaper two years ago?

    When viewed from an economic standpoint, education is a product consumed by students, and the price of the service should rise only as the value of the service increases. Yet California has a $15 billion budget crisis, and Schwarzenegger sees this as a justification for extorting money from students and cutting their financial aid.

    Budget crisis or no, students are the last people who should pay off California’s budget crisis. Furthermore, the policy of using students as piggy banks will harm California and the UC system in the long run.

    According to the U.S. Census, whites earned an average of $31,700 annually in 2000, while Latinos averaged $11,674, Asians $22,050, and blacks $17,447. These figures show that there is a real and sizable income gap between races, and that whites, which constitute 46.7 percent of Californians, out-earn all other races.

    In other words, these fee increases and cuts in financial aid will amount to a disproportionate burden on the 40 percent or so of Californians who aren’t white. So when the director of the Office of Academic Support and Instructional Services, Patrick Velasquez, said at the Price Center rally that these fee hikes will create less diversity in the University of California, he was right: The numbers show that minority students, on the whole, come from poorer families and would constitute the majority of students forced out of the UC system by the proposed fee hikes and cuts to financial aid.

    This should be disturbing news to all Californians. Shutting minority students out of the University of California hurts the quality and reputation of the university itself, and unfairly blocks education to the very students who can benefit the most from a college education. The income gap between races is largely caused by disparities in educational levels, which relegate minorities to less lucrative jobs. Hence, the way to erase this gap is to open the doors to education for minority students so they can climb higher on the income scale. Making a UC education prohibitively expensive for these students is, of course, no way to accomplish economic and educational equality. Further, it should never happen in a school that bills itself as public and is supported by every taxpayer in California.

    “Like our kindergarten through 12th grade schools, our colleges and universities must also share the burden of the fiscal crisis, but we must work to expand the dream of college,” remarked Schwarzenegger as he announced the 10-percent annual increase in UC tuition. The rhetoric is pleasant, but his proposal is the quickest way to make “the dream of college” (college at the University of California, at least) financially impossible for more and more high school seniors.

    The University of California is the site of an incredible amount of racial, economic and cultural diversity, which is what public education is all about. The budget crisis may give us an easy reason to squeeze revenue out of students, but we should hardly compromise the appeal of the university — diversity and a lot of bang for one’s buck — in favor of temporarily easing California’s financial struggle. Especially when, in the end, these fee increases will do nothing to increase the state’s revenue.

    Schwarzenegger’s proposal also includes a whopping 40-percent increase in tuition for graduate students; needless to say, this 40-percent increase is enough to erase the incentive for students to attend the University of California for graduate school. A UCSD medical student who spoke at the rally predicted a “brain drain out of the state” as students avoid rising UC costs by attending private or out-of-state schools. His prediction is likely correct in light of a 1996 RAND Corporation study that found that every 10-percent increase in UC fees would lead to a half-percent decrease in enrollment.

    The big pull of the University of California is that it’s a bargain; make it less of a bargain, and students will seek education elsewhere. Because of this likely decrease in enrollment, the aim of the fee hikes — increased revenue to the state to ease the budget crisis — will most likely never materialize.

    Further, a decrease of graduate school enrollment would end up hurting California’s industry, as smaller pools of doctors, lawyers and other professionals would be hired in California as they finish their degrees. It’s in California’s best interest to make education affordable for the maximum number of students because highly educated people make money, spend money, and keep business and investment alive. Education may entail a large initial investment, but it pays for itself in the end.

    In short, the costs of increasing UC fees while cutting financial aid are hardly worth the benefits. Schwarzenegger, the man who bills himself as “the education governor” and “a man of the people,” would do well to live up to these labels.

    In his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger said, “I want your ideas, and the more radical the better.” Here’s a radical idea, then: Raise taxes, just a little, and have everyone share in the burden of the budget crisis, not just California’s already cash-strapped students.

    Taking a miniscule percentage of each person’s income would go a long way toward mending the budget crisis, whereas increasing student fees would go nowhere. Paying a slightly higher tax might be annoying, but it’s a lot less severe than making the University of California prohibitively expensive for some students. And best yet, the tax money will come back to taxpayers in the long run. It benefits everyone for California to have a more balanced budget and a healthy group of college graduates to support California’s industry.

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