Court Backs $33.8-Million Judgment on UC Grad Fees

    A state appeals court ruled that the University of California
    must pay $33.8 million in damages to professional school students whose student
    fees were unexpectedly increased in 2003.

    The Nov. 2 ruling by San Francisco Superior Court Judge
    James L. Warren rejected the university’s appeal of the 2006 Kashmiri v.
    Regents class-action decision, which found that several thousand students at UC
    Berkeley and UCLA were entitled to damages after the UC Board of Regents raised
    professional degree fees by 30 percent in 2003 and a similar amount in 2004,
    despite offering promises that fees would not be increased for continuing
    students.

    Additionally, professional students whose educational fees
    (which are separate from degree fees) were increased after receiving billing
    statements are eligible for compensation.

    Affected students may receive anywhere from a little over a
    hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on their specific campus
    and degree programs. Including interest, the total cost to the university is
    nearly $40 million.

    The ruling applies only to UC students enrolled before
    December 2002. Promotional materials for the university from 1994 to that date
    — including the UC Office of the President Web site, the university’s annual
    budget reports and the catalog for UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law —
    contain statements that professional degree fees will remain the same for the
    duration of a student’s enrollment, and that fee increases will affect only new
    students.

    The plaintiffs, eight UC alumni who filed suit on behalf of
    all affected students, argued that the 2003 fee hikes were a violation of those
    guarantees.

    The university countered that all fee advertisements —
    including those presented by the plaintiffs — contain a general disclaimer that
    fees may be increased at any time. However, the 2003 fee increases came after
    billing statements had already been mailed. In its decision, the court wrote
    that the disclaimer could not apply to fees that had already been assessed.

    “If we were to permit the university’s disclaimer to permit
    it to raise the fees at any time without providing the students with any
    notice, even after students have paid their bills, this would lead to absurd
    results,” the court opinion said.

    The decision comes after a long period of tight state
    budgets and ever-increasing student fees, particularly for graduate and
    professional students. At Boalt, for example, the professional degree fee —
    only one component of student fees — more than doubled between the 2002 and
    2005 academic years, increasing from $6,000 in 2002 to over $15,000 in 2005.

    Professional fees at all UC schools saw a temporary two-year
    hike in 2005, when the regents narrowly approved a fee increase to recoup
    losses after a preliminary injunction in the Kashmiri case prohibited the
    university from charging increased professional degree fees.

    “Essentially, the UC Board of Regents would be imposing a
    fee increase to compensate for the losses incurred by a lawsuit over a previous
    fee increase,” Berkeley’s
    Daily Californian wrote in a 2005 editorial. “The irony is simply staggering.”

    Though UC fee increases have tapered off in recent years,
    unexpectedly low state revenue may lead the state Legislature to slash
    education spending in the very near future. On Nov. 5, Gov. Arnold
    Schwarzenegger already asked state agencies to reduce budgets by 10 percent.

    The university is considering another appeal of the Kashmiri
    ruling.

    “We are disappointed with the ruling,” UC spokesman Ricardo
    Vazquez told the San Jose Mercury News, adding that university attorneys “are
    really carefully looking at the opinion.”

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