High Cost of Education Comes With High Costs For California

    As most UCSD students finished up last quarter’s final exams, a meeting of the UC regents at UCLA hammered another nail in the the financial coffin of UC students, voting to hike student fees 7 percent for undergraduate and graduate students, and as much as 10 percent for some professional students.

    It wasn’t an unusual step: Student fees have risen repeatedly over the past decade. And considering that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature have permitted increases of up to 10 percent, the hike was not as large for many students as it might have been.

    But the rise in fees is significant in terms of what it represents. This year, undergraduates at the University of California can expect to pay close to $6,600 in mandatory “”educational fees”” (plus no small sum in registration fees, activity fees and other related charges). Students who enrolled at the university in 2002, in comparison, paid roughly $3,500 in educational fees.

    In other words, fees have nearly doubled in only five years, easily outstripping inflation and taking a huge bite out of financial aid packages. With such a spike in costs, one can’t help but ask: What exactly are our priorities as a state?

    It may come as a surprise to most UC students that – in theory – they aren’t meant to pay tuition. The UC Master Plan of 1960 dedicates the UC regents to “”the long-standing principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition-free to all residents of the state.””

    Of course, a California education is hardly free, as any UC student (or parent) knows all too well. But it is meant to be.

    Planning for an influx of 600,000 some-odd students – the children of World War II veterans – the regents developed the Master Plan, which clearly delineated the roles of the UC system, the state colleges and the network of community colleges. At the core of the plan was the notion that there would be a spot for any qualified student somewhere in the three systems.

    But continuous fee hikes – at community colleges and the CSU campuses as well as UC schools – have put that commitment in jeopardy. Though California students are blessed with substantial return-to-aid provisions (as administrators are quick to point out), continuing fee increases at current rates will slowly but undoubtedly push higher education out of the grasp of more and more students.

    In 1999, as the regents considered revising the Master Plan, former UC President Clark Kerr – one of the original masterminds behind the plan – found similarities between the current situation and the one facing the state in 1960. Then, California universities anticipated a massive spike in attendance as nearly 600,000 children of World War II veterans became eligible for state colleges. Now, we face a similar spike (Kerr’s estimate was about 500,000 in 1999), but with the added challenge of a state budget struggling with the high costs of an aging population.

    At the same meeting, Kerr also pointed out the connection between technology, worker skills and economic growth, arguing that technological innovation and worker training accounts for anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of the state’s economic growth. Additionally, he noted an apparent shift in California’s budget priorities: In 1960, the state spent 13 percent of its general budget on education, compared to only 9 percent in 1999. Over the same period, state spending on corrections increased from 3 percent of the budget to 8 percent. Health and welfare, meanwhile, increased from 15 percent of the budget to 31 percent.

    Health care is a good thing. Protecting the state from crime is a good thing. But when considering laws that deal with these issues, we must look at them not simply in the context of giving health care to Californians, or keeping criminals off the streets. We must also consider the opportunity costs. California’s three-strikes law, for instance, does keep habitual criminals off the street. But it also locks up a huge number of nonviolent offenders for life, diverting funds from our schools (and eliminating opportunities that keep people from turning to crime in the first place).

    As we pick and choose our budget priorities, legislators must realize that divestment in education seriously harms our future. As we reduce our commitment to education, we also reduce our ability to compete in the marketplace – and our ability to pay for services ourselves – thus increasing our reliance on state subsidies for essentials such as health services.

    It’s an ugly cycle that can only be broken at the base.

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