Tuition Hikes: Protests in California and Elsewhere

  • Share
  • Read Later
Justin Sullivan / Getty

UC Berkeley students hang out in Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California.

Facing reductions in state funding, public universities from Michigan to Arizona to North Carolina have slashed budgets and hiked tuition. The most extreme case is California where University of California regents voted this week to increase tuition a whopping 32% to more than $10,000 annually — a three-fold increase in a decade. The move was greeted by student demonstrations.

During two days of protests at UCLA, where the UC regents met to vote on the fee increase, about 2,000 students from the 10-campus system confronted riot police, shouted slogans and blocked building exits. Like a scene out of the angry 1960s, students surged against barricades and briefly seized a building near the main campus quad; police used taser guns on several protesters, and arrested nearly 20. All the while, police helicopters hovered overhead, TV vans with high antennas stood ready and students played drums and strummed guitars.

At a sit-down strike that blocked vehicles from leaving, UCLA student leader Michael Hawley spoke through his bullhorn, "We want one regent to come out to speak to us about why the world's richest country will be denying some students higher education next quarter." Police responded by telling demonstrators they had three minutes to leave before being arrested. Then, forming a flying wedge, police led a small group of regents to another building.

Addressing 100 students blocking a parking garage driveway defended by eight visored police with billy clubs, UCLA Sophomore Chiemela Okwandu told the crowd, "This is our university. We can sleep here if we want." Speaking to TIME, Okwandu said the $2,500 tuition increase will be a major problem for many students. "Some of my friends won't be here next quarter. Before it was a question of how smart you were. Now, it's do you have enough money to pay for school." Veronica Hernandez, who grew up in East LA and attends UC Riverside, said, "It took a long time for minorities to increase their numbers at the University of California. Now those numbers are going to go down." University officials say many students would be shielded from the effects of the tuition hike by additional financial aid.

UC President Mark G. Yudof said the tuition increase is unfortunate: "When you have no money, you have no money." And the budget woes in Sacramento continue. California's budget analyst announced this week that the state is facing another huge deficit next year — $21 billion of red ink.

Amid signs reading "RIP Affordable Education" and "California #1 in Prison Spending, #48 in Education," Emily Bischof, a fourth year geography and environmental studies major at UCLA said the cuts are significant. "Upper division classes that once had 30 students now have 80 or 100 students and there are no teaching assistants. Professors are giving true-false, multiple choice Scantron exams." Nicole Garner, a fourth year at UC Riverside, blames the state's famous tax revolt for the university's financial troubles. "Proposition 13 has to go," Garner said.

In addition to the mass protest at UCLA, students at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz occupied buildings to signal their displeasure with the fee increase. At UC Davis, more than 50 people were arrested Thursday on misdemeanor trespassing charges for refusing to leave Mrak Hall. At UC Berkeley, students took control of the second floor of Wheeler Hall on Friday before campus police arrested three students and at UC Santa Cruz protesters occupied a building and issued a list of demands to the campus administration.

From 2002 to 2006, the share of educational costs represented by student tuition rose from just over one-third to nearly one-half at public four year institutions across the country. "Students are paying more and getting less in the classroom," says Jane Wellman, author of "Trends in College Spending," a report by the Delta Project, a Washington, DC nonprofit that tracks postsecondary education costs. The amount of money spent on instruction has declined at all institutions — public and private —since 2002.

The main reason that costs — and tuition — are rising at public universities is a drop in state support. According to Wellman, in 2006, state taxpayers spent $7,078 per student at public research universities. That's nearly $1,300 less than in 2002. Any spending increase has been largely for administration, maintenance and student services, not instruction. At many public universities, the deep recession has made the situation worse.

In Lansing, Michigan, this week approximately 30 Michigan State University students and faculty picketed the state capitol to protest budget cuts and tuition hikes at Michigan's public universities. In a state hammered by the recession, in-state and out-of-state students at the University of Michigan saw tuition rise 11.6% between the 2007-08 and 2009-10 academic years to $11,659 and $34,937, respectively. In Arizona, two tuition hikes within five months added $1,000 to the bills of incoming freshman. For the new students at Arizona State University, tuition and fees spiked 20% to $6,840 a year.

In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a group of students on Wednesday protested a plan by the UNC Board of Trustees' audit and finance committee to raise tuition 5.2% for undergraduates. Trustees said increase would generate nearly $4 million for the campus and would allow the university to continue to compete for top faculty.

Regents at the 174,000-student University of Wisconsin system have adopted tuition hikes of 5.5% for the past three years. UW System President Kevin P. Reilly says the "modest and predictable" increases have allowed the university to avoid curbing enrollment or cutting programs even as class sizes increase. UW-Madison's tuition still ranks as one of the lowest in the Big 10.

But in California, Jeff Bleich, the outgoing chair of the 23-campus 450,000-student California State University system, warns, "California is on the verge of destroying the system [of higher education] that once made this state great." Disinvesting in higher education is an economic mistake says the UC Berkeley law school graduate, "For every dollar the state invests in a CSU student, it receives $4.41 in return."

Speaking for public university presidents across the nation, UW's Reilly says, "It is simply not possible to maintain the integrity of our academic programs, the quality of our university experience, without raising tuition — particularly in the face of ongoing declines in state support."