Saving the UC – but at what cost to students?
In the University of California system, officials are considering raising fees as much as 16% a year through 2015. To hear more about what this means for students, and for public education in California, KALW’s Holly Kernan spoke with UC’s student liaison to the Regents, Jonathan Stein. Stein is a graduate student in public policy and law at UC Berkeley, and he’s one of two students represented in the University’s decision-making body.
HOLLY KERNAN: How did we get to where we are now?
JONATHAN STEIN: People make the point a lot that this state has put us in this position, and to a very significant extent they’re correct. The budget crisis that the UC is in today is not just the product of a short-term economic recession that is affecting the state budget. It’s actually the product of a long-term divestment from the state of California exacerbated by a short-term economic recession. I mean, if you look at some of the numbers… In 1985, so two and a half decades ago, corrections in the UC and the state of California were both about 6% of the budget. Today corrections are about 12% – so they’ve doubled. And the UC is about 3%, so it’s been cut in half. In real terms, what that means is that two decades ago the state of California was the number one contributor to the UC system, and today [the state] is behind student fees. And so you could make a very real argument that the state UC system is itself in a position where they need to privatize. So the Regents are put in this very difficult position where they have to make choices in a difficult financial environment and they’re saying, “Okay, we refuse to compromise in the quality of the university. We refuse to increase the student to faculty ratio. We refuse to increase the number of tenure track faculty. We don’t want to cut staff or services. And in the absence of state funding, how are we supposed to pay for all of that?” And their answer time and again is student fees.
HOLLY KERNAN: Student fees and trying to raise more money through corporate donations, etcetera, right?
STEIN: Right, except that the most rosy estimate to how much we can raise through corporate fundraising is somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million a year, which is not necessarily a drop in the bucket in terms of the UC budget, but it’s not much more than a handful of drops in the bucket. So student fees at this point have really become the primary way that the UC finances itself and fills its budget holes.
KERNAN: Yes, but another fee hike is being proposed right now and I believe that Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, formally San Francisco mayor, is saying, “No, let’s not do a tuition hike. Let’s look for other ways to continue along this privatization line.”
STEIN: Yeah, so at the last Regents meeting, for example, the UCOP – which is the University of California Office of the President – who are the administrators in charge of running this system, came to the Regents with the proposal that they were... the Regents were in a considerance of temper and will vote on down the line in which fees went up anywhere from 0-16% and the actual amount made up would be determined by the amount the state put in. So if the state gives us 8%, student fees go up by 8%. If the state gives us 0%, student fees go up by 16%. The UCOP was determining it an eight-and-eight plan and immediately students said, “No, this is a 16-and-zero plan. Let’s be honest. The state government is not going to be in a position to increase our funding in any substantial way anytime in the future.” So this we see as a recipe for increasing fees 16% every year for a number of years and that would take student fees. I have the numbers in front of me, from the current $13,000 which is a dramatic increase from just a couple of years ago, to just four years down the line from now: $22,000 a student. And you could make a very serious argument… In fact I think it’s inescapable that the UC will have completely lost its role as a leader in access and affordability nationwide and public higher education.
KERNAN: That’s a big issue in terms of access in terms of the 1960 master plan for education in California. What do you think these rising costs mean to this public education system?
STEIN: It means that the doors to public higher education in California will begin to close in the middle class. The low-income students get a reasonable amount of aid when you combine Pell grants, Cal grants and then university aid. We do a relatively good job in the UC system actually in giving gift aid to students in really low-income families. And students coming from high-income families can continue to afford the UC because it’s still much cheaper than private schools. But the students that are going to be priced out of the UC if we continue on this path are students from middle-income families, and the middle-income family, you know – we’re not talking about a family making $60,000, we’re talking about a family where one parent is a teacher and the other parent is a landscaper or a fireman or something. Both parents can be making $60,000 or $70,000. And you’re talking about a family that together makes over $100,000. And yet, it still is incredibly difficult to send a student to school when that costs $15,000 every year. Plus you have to add on of course the cost of living in a city like Berkeley or Los Angeles or San Diego where the cost of living is high. So the total cost of going to the UC for a year can be $30,000-50,000. If you’re from a middle-income family and even if you’re making over $100,000, education access has become increasingly difficult
KERNAN: Jonathan you don’t get voting power until next year. Is it frustrating for you to be at these meetings and not have voting power?
STEIN: It can be, yeah. More frustrating I think is the fact that students only have one vote total. Students now put in more money to the UC system than the state of California and yet on the entire Board of Regents there is one voting student member. Meanwhile there are five or six ex-oficio members of the Board of Regents, that is the governor, the lieutenant governor, the superintendent of schools, and other elected officials. Then I believe 16 members appointed for 12-year terms by the governor of California. So the vast majority of the board has some connection to state government.
KERNAN: And you have said that this position is probably more important than ever before in history. How are you talking across these lines of the Regents and communicating to students about what’s happening.
STEIN: Well at times it’s really difficult because you have to maintain your credibility in the eyes of two very different groups. So you have to sometimes do what is in the best interest of the university, and the Regents will only take you seriously if you do that. At the same time you are nothing in this position unless the students back you up on things. You simply have no power as one voice to go to the Board of Regents and to the chancellors and to the administration – all the centers of power within the system – and say, “I personally believe we ought to do this differently.” No one is going to listen to you if that’s the case; you have to have a coalition of students behind you who are pushing towards the same thing. And in order to have that coalition behind you students have to know that you’re a credible advocate for them.
KERNAN: So how do we solve the system’s problems?
STEIN: I think the state of California simply needs more revenues. I mean, look at this: The UC system this year received just over $2 billion from the state of California. That's in a budget of $80 billion, so it really looks like the state of California has de-prioritized the UC system and I argue that it has. But there are two ways that we can tackle that problem. One is re-prioritizing the UC, which I am a fervent advocate of. At the same time, we simply need to grow the pot of money with which state government can make choices and can invest in public priorities. You know, if you take out all of the entitlement spending in the state budget, if you take out K-14, which is K-12 plus community colleges, and that's 40% of the general fund as required by Prop 98, you take out servicing the debt and other mandatory expenses, and all you're left with in the California general fund, really, is criminal justice, health and human services, and higher ed. And so, every time I go to legislators and I lobby on behalf of more money for the UC system, they're saying, "Well okay, do you want me to take money away from single moms, who need programs to provide healthcare for their kids? To provide free lunches for low-income students? Do you want me to cut services to the disabled or the elderly?” And my answer is of course is, "No. It isn't. I would never advocate for those things." What we really need to do is we need to find a way to put the state on some kind of long-term, sustainable funding model – a system of public finance that actually allows us to invest in public priorities the way that California used to do when it was a nationwide leader in big, bold policy experiments. And today, we're simply... We have a broken state government that can't fund anything.
KERNAN: You have a seat at the table of these very important meetings. What does it look like? What is that meeting like?
STEIN: You've got a group of people who don't tend to get to campus a lot, don't spend a lot of time with students, and are a long ways away from the time in their life where paying $13,000 for a year of school was a real pinch on their pocketbooks. And so, the student regent is responsible not just for saying, "Hey, students support the DREAM Act and students support and oil severance tax." But more than that, on a deeper level, just articulating for folks who don't run into students a lot how difficult it is to pay for an education in today's California.
KERNAN: Is it hard for you to juggle school with that responsibility?
STEIN: Yeah, it is at times. But that's okay because I see school really as a vehicle for involving myself in things that I'm passionate about and oftentimes those things are more outside the classroom than they are in. And I should say that I am certainly not the only one doing this. The student movement at the UC level and at the CSU level and at the CC level involves student leaders in a variety of different capacities all playing their role and all making sacrifices in order to do so. It's sort of funny that you have to sacrifice a little piece of your education to fight for education, but it's worth it.
KERNAN: And how has being a regent and having this seat at the table and having this responsibility changed the way that you see politics in California and the way you see yourself? How has it changed you?
STEIN: Well the hope is that it hasn't changed me very much at all because the student regent is the one student position where you're suddenly invited to receptions and cocktail hours and you're invited to dinners that you wouldn’t otherwise be invited to. And the hope is that all of the glitz and the glamour doesn't blunt the energy with which you pursue the student position on things. It's difficult to say, in the middle of a conversation between three or four other people, "You know, Vice Chancellor, I really think it's important that we talk about the implementation of the consultation and input policies for graduate professional degree fees." You know, it's sort of gauche to be pushing your agenda in a setting like that. And yet, settings like those are sometimes the only times that you have to make your point so you have to sort of be the fly in the ointment at times.
KERNAN: And you started to say "My view is that..."
STEIN: Oh my view of state government hasn't really changed because I thought it was broken before I took this job and I think it's broken now. One thing that has changed in this role, though, is my perspective of state legislators. I did a lot of lobbying and advocacy on behalf of students before I got this job and I went on a number of lobby visits with legislators and legislative staff and all of them say, to the last man or woman, "We're advocates for higher education, we’re champions for higher education, we believe in higher education, we went to a UC, our children go to UC’s, blah blah blah." And then they turn around and they pass a budget that cuts the UC system $650 million as is the case in this last budget cycle. And it took me some time in this job to realize that we were getting snowed a little bit -- that it was just a really, really effective sales job. And that all those people who told me that they were advocates for the UC system, who then would vote for the increased pay for prison guards and then cut the UC by hundreds of millions of dollars, had fooled me a little bit. And I'm not fooled anymore.
KERNAN: So let me ask you this. What is different about California's system? What's at stake here?
STEIN: Fully 40% of students in the UC system receive Pell grants. You compare that to privates: USC, 16%; MIT, 15%; Harvard, 7%... I mean when people say that we're in danger of limiting the quality of this institution if we make further cuts, my response is "Yes we are." And that's unfortunate. At the same time, we're also on the verge of compromising access and affordability and while we're in a really impressive university because of our Nobel prizes and because of the amazing research we do, we're a really unique university because of the community of students that we educate – because of this unique population, from diverse and varied backgrounds, from all over the socio-economic spectrum. And to compromise that, in my mind, would be just as much of a tragedy as compromising our research excellence or our Nobel prizes or what have you.
What are your solutions to the budget crisis facing California colleges? Let us know on our Facebook page. This story originally aired on October 12, 2011.