Fees don’t fail me now

Students turn to ballot box to stop rising state-university tuitions

Like many of her friends, Valencia Henley finds it difficult to keep up with escalating CSUS fees.

Like many of her friends, Valencia Henley finds it difficult to keep up with escalating CSUS fees.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

To get involved in the movement to get the College Affordability Act on the November ballot, contact Tuition Relief Now Northern California director Jason Tescher at (916) 761-8310 or www.tuitionreliefnow.org.

Money is funny and change is strange for some Sacramento State students. Just ask Valencia Henley, an ethnic-studies major who graduates this spring.

“Each semester I have faced being kicked out of classes due not to my grades, but to being late paying student fees,” she said. “At times my professors have let me stay in their classes until I can pay. Many of my friends are also struggling this way.”

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 Sac State since 2000 at $35,000 upon graduating with a master’s degree in sociology this spring.

And fees are set to increase 10 percent in the CSU system and 8 percent in the UC system in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2008-09 budget. 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, which adds that 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 the student-led coalition Tuition Relief Now. The all-volunteer, Berkeley-based group has crafted a solution to the problem of escalating public-university fees: qualifying the College Affordability Act of 2008 for the November ballot.

Henley 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. If they succeed and voters approve the measure, students at the state’s public institutions of higher education would benefit. The arithmetic of it is so simple even humanities majors can understand it.

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.

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 which the governor proposes to shrink with budget cuts across the board, including slashing 9 percent from higher-education spending in 2008-09.

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 budget, beginning in 2009-10.

Surely, the state’s millionaires do not cheer a tax increase. If voters approve that for CSU and UC students, the reasoning among many in the upper crust goes: What is to stop further tax hikes on the well-heeled for other public services? Expect to hear that Reagan-era chestnut about taxes on the richest of the rich trickling down in the form of higher prices and fewer jobs for the middle-class and poor, an argument that will be closely accompanied by “the fairness issue”: If state universities cater to everyone, shouldn’t the burden be spread to everyone?

Indeed, the students’ grassroots movement to find relief from rising state-university tuitions 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, and 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 the new millionaire tax would fill the void left by the freeze of student fees at Cal State and UC schools. The remaining tax revenue would flow to K-14 school spending. 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.

Tuition Relief Now has funding for the proposal in part from the Greenlining Action Fund, which is the political wing of the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, which calls itself a “multi-ethnic public policy research and advocacy institute.”

Sarah Vanstrom-Vint, the Sac State campus organizer for Tuition Relief Now, is a single mom and American River College student who is busy contacting professors and student groups to recruit volunteer signature-collectors for the proposed ballot initiative.

She says she is “really excited” to be a part of an emerging movement for more affordable higher education, and that spirit of progressive change is not lost on her 8-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who often tags along with her mother in organizing Sac State students.

“I want Jasmine to know that college is an option,” says Vanstrom-Vint, “as she will be following me.”