Students push a ballot initiative to stop tuition hikes at state universities
Students may notice that some of their classmates have become bleary-eyed. That’s because trying to fund a college education is a task that requires increasingly longer hours.
“A lot of students are falling asleep in my classes because they’re working 38 hours a week to pay for school,” said Julia Murphy, a regional organizer of Tuition Relief Now and a junior at Chico State.
In an effort to curb the zombie-like state sweeping over her classmates, Murphy is gathering volunteers and signatures to help Tuition Relief Now pass California’s first student-led ballot measure, which would effectively put a stop to tuition hikes.
“California has long looked at students to be the ATM for funding,” Murphy said. The rising cost of tuition in California is particularly hard on students who come from middle-income families that don’t qualify for financial aid.
Olgalilia Ramirez, director of governmental relations with the California State Student Association, says rising education fees “are a great concern for middle- and low-income students.” She pegs her debt from attending Sacramento State since 2000 at $35,000 upon graduating with a master’s degree in sociology this spring.
Fees are set to increase 10 percent in the CSU system and 8 percent in the UC system under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget for 2008-09. Current resident undergraduate fees are about $7,000 at UC schools and $3,000 at CSU schools, according to the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, though actual amounts vary by campus.
News that inflation has been rising at a 3 percent annual rate nationally since 2002 is cold comfort for state university students. They have watched their fees nearly double over the past six years, according to Tuition Relief Now—so the all-volunteer, Berkeley-based group has crafted the College Affordability Act of 2008, aimed at the November general election.
Murphy and scores of unpaid students, parents and university advocates representing a total of 30 CSU and UC campuses are hard at work to collect 434,000 signatures from registered voters by mid-April to put the initiative on the ballot.
The proposed initiative would, beginning in 2008-09, freeze fees for five years for resident undergraduates at CSU schools. Their UC counterparts would have to await adoption of a fee freeze by the system’s Board of Regents.
After state university fees are unfrozen in year six, fee increases could not exceed the annual percentage change in the California Consumer Price Index. That would create some price stability for students where little now exists.
But wait: Won’t hundreds of thousands of students paying less to attend California’s public universities increase the $14.5 billion deficit in the state general fund? That’s the shortfall that the governor proposes to shrink with budget cuts across the board, including slashing 9 percent from higher-education spending in 2008-09. (See Newslines for more details.)
On one hand, the proposed five-year freeze would reduce revenue from students’ fees by about $1 billion, or 1 percent of the state general fund.
On the other, the state would more than make up for that by raising the tax rate 1 percent on personal income of $1 million and up—the top bracket—to a rate of 11.3 percent. This surcharge on California millionaires would add nearly $2 billion a year to the general fund, beginning in 2009-10.
The students’ grassroots movement could shake the Capitol dome, under which the interests of the millionaire class often dovetail with the taxation dislike of the governor and his Republican colleagues. The Legislature’s Democratic leadership already may be eying higher taxes on the top 1 percenters to cope with the state budget gap, California’s housing crash and assorted pet projects.
According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, 60 percent of such a “millionaire tax” would fill the void left by the freeze of student fees at CSU and UC schools. The remaining tax revenue would flow to K-12 schools and community colleges.
“I think that if we can pass this it will prove that students can be a major political force,” Murphy said, “and I think we’re all ready for that.”