Can't Make the Cut

Yuiko Sugino/Guardian

Last Wednesday, in light of recent drastic budget cuts to the public higher-education system in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to “protect” funding for education in his State of the State speech.

“[California’s] priorities have become out of whack over the years,” Schwarzenegger said.

In the situation of Eleanor Roosevelt College senior Lara Dildy — a student whose parents don’t meet financial-aid requirements — the protection, if delivered, couldn’t come a moment too soon.

“The UC system was created so that it wasn’t about whether or not you had the financial means to go this school,” Dildy said. “It was about whether you demonstrated the academic skills and the perseverance.”

For Dildy, the fee increases approved by the Board of Regents in November reflect a shifting of higher-up priorities.

In 1960, the Master Plan for Higher Education in California was enacted, setting up a postsecondary public schooling system in which higher education was envisioned as a public good. Under the Master Plan — which applied to the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems — affordability and access were key.

Tuition was originally intended to be free, with only auxiliary costs like recreation and housing made mandatory for students, while the state was responsible for funding instruction.

But as the state budget has shrunk steadily over the last five decades, student fees have increased to cover academic costs. According to the 2009-2010 Budget for Current Operations Budget Detail, since the 1990-91 academic year, the state’s share of per-student funding has dropped 40 percent — and this number will likely grow, as the budget detail was released before more significant cuts were made in 2009.

Red Tape

For Dildy, this January’s 15-percent tuition hike has made affordability — upon which the Master Plan was founded — a sweet but unrealistic ideal.

Dildy first ran into financial difficulties in December 2008, when her dad lost his job. She later approached the financial-aid office for assistance but left empty-handed, as her financial-aid eligibility was determined by her parents’ tax return from the year before. Dildy resorted to applying for a private loan, which took months to secure.

“There’s a lot of people out there who do need financial aid and aren’t getting it because their parents make too much,” Dildy said. “It’s like, that’s great, I’m glad my parents are making money — but that doesn’t mean they’re giving that money to me.”

According to Dildy, a large portion of her parents’ income goes toward medical care, as members of her family — including herself — suffer from health issues.

“[The money’s] not just sitting there in the bank or buying gold bars,” Dildy said. “It’s being used. It’s supporting a very pinched lifestyle already. People say, ‘Your parents have money.’ But where is it? Because no one is sending me a check every month.”

Dildy planned to use the private loan she received to finance her final year at UCSD. As a result of the midyear fee hike, however, she has calculated that her loan will only last until March.

“They did the fee increases, which pretty much makes it so that, at this point — even if my step-mom also hadn’t recently lost her job over Thanksgiving — I still wouldn’t have had enough money to get me through the year,” Dildy said. “Now I’m at a point where I have to reapply for another loan.”

However badly she needs the money, Dildy says she is completely disenchanted with UCSD’s aid system.

“The lady that helped me [at the financia-aid office] was really, really great,” Dildy said. “She was a really sweet lady, but it was kind of like, all that bureaucratic red tape was just getting in the way of people who generally just need help. It’s a fucked up system. People who already had financial aid — friends that I have — ran into difficulty getting money to cover the new fee increase.”

In UC President Mark G. Yudof’s Oct. 16, letter announcing the proposed increases, he promised that one-third of the revenue from the tuition hikes would be allocated for financial aid. Yudof wrote that additional aid would cover the new fees for close to 75 percent of undergraduates whose household incomes fell below $180,000. Some students have reported receiving additional aid prior to the January increase, but as the $585 hike just became effective, no figures have been released to determine whether or not all three-quarters of the qualified students received extra funding as promised.

Now, Dildy — a double major in communications and political science — faces an uncertain final two quarters before graduation.

“I don’t know if I have enough money to graduate this spring,” Dildy said. ”And it’s been getting like, really difficult because combining the anxiety of trying to worry every single month — like, ‘Wait, OK, how am I going to pay for the rent? How am I going to do this? Am I going to be able to pay for this quarter?’ And then combining that with, ‘How am I going to try and stay on top of 16 units every quarter?’ You know, it just creates these huge anxiety levels. And I’m probably 10 times more exhausted than I remember being before my dad lost his job.”

Luckily, Dildy said her professors have been understanding of her situation.

“Teachers, I think, need to be more aware of the potential for things like this to happen to students. And I understand there’s strict standards for academics, but [financial issues] put a huge damper on people’s emotional well-being,” said Dildy. “It’s hard to separate your school when you see everything around you sort of crashing.”

HopeS and D.R.E.A.M.

Under the Master Plan, high school seniors in the top eighth of their classes were guaranteed admission to a UC campus. Those in the top third were guaranteed a spot at a California State University, and admission was open at California Community Colleges.

According to the UC Office of the President summary of the Plan, these guidelines were established to guarantee access to higher education. But for former Revelle College first year Enrique Aguilar, a guaranteed spot isn’t enough.

Although Aguilar has been a California resident for nine years and graduated from a California public high school, as a Mexican citizen, he was considered an international student. As a result, Aguilar didn’t qualify for publicly funded financial aid. Unable to pay the fee hikes himself, Aguilar was forced to drop out of UCSD.

Aguilar moved to San Jose with his parents and younger brother when he was nine years old with his sights set on attending a UC campus.

“Ever since I came to this country, I had heard of the University of California system,” Aguilar said. “I knew it was a prestigious university, and I always wanted to go to a UC ever since I got here.”

Aguilar applied to eight UC campuses and received offers of admission from six of them, but ultimately settled on UCSD and started as a computer-engineering major in Fall Quarter 2009. Because Aguilar attended a California high school for more than three years and graduated, he qualified for in-state tuition under California Assembly Bill 540. He received a private scholarship, but as a result of family circumstances and rising educational costs, it wasn’t enough.

“I couldn’t finish the quarter because the longer I stayed, the more money I would have had to pay for housing,” Aguilar said. “My dad doesn’t work as much, so he doesn’t earn as much as before. The fee increase just made it worse. It made it impossible for me to be paying for everything out of my own pocket.”

Aguilar said he wasn’t able to secure a private loan, because he couldn’t find a U.S. citizen with good credit who was willing to co-sign — a requirement to receive the loan. After making rounds to the housing office, academic advising and the financial-aid office to no avail, Aguilar left San Diego on Nov. 22, 2009, a few weeks before the end of his first quarter.

Currently, Aguilar is enrolled in general-education classes at Evergreen Valley College.

“I will be attending community college, and that’s obviously not going to be the same,” Aguilar said. “I really got attached to UCSD. I felt really safe there because UCSD has the largest [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] Resource Center at any public university, and I actually lived in LGBT housing. Now I’m going to have to [transfer] to a private school, because they are the only ones that can give me financial aid.”

Aguilar is also considering schools abroad. If he takes this path, Aguilar said he would attend a more affordable private university in Mexico, then transfer to a university in Canada or Britain after two years.

But if the still pending Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — which was introduced in its current form to Congress last March, but has been kicked around legislative chambers since 2001 — had been passed, Aguilar might have had it easier. Under the D.R.E.A.M. Act, qualified noncitizen students would be eligible to apply for student loans and the federal work-study program. The act would also grant these students temporary residency — the first step to obtaining U.S. citizenship.

“I just hope that Obama passes the D.R.E.A.M. Act,” Aguilar said. “A lot of students in the same situation as me are depending on it. It doesn’t seem to be a priority right now, but a lot of students are still being optimistic. I still have some hope.”

As Dildy and Aguilar would attest, the priorities of the 1960 Master Plan — access and affordability — are, as Gov. Schwarzenegger put it, out of whack. Under the plan, higher education was envisioned as a public good. But according to a Dec. 8, 2009 Sacramento Bee article, in a series of legislative hearings held to review the Master Plan, Yudof admitted that the university seems to have strayed from its founding principles.

“We don’t want to partially privatize [UC] by raising fees,” Yudof said. “And yet that is the direction we seem to be heading.”

For Dildy, this direction betrays the very purpose of the university.

“This is a UC school,” Dildy said. “This a state school. This isn’t Stanford. This is not Yale. This isn’t Harvard. We shouldn’t have to pay that much. It was designed to be top-notch education affordable for all people, particularly California residents — and it’s not meeting any of those standards. They really need to rethink why the UCs were created, and they need to go back to that original goal.”

Readers can contact Aprille Muscara at [email protected].

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