WE’RE IN THE DARK
“We realize that what you are all qualified to do is run private businesses, but we students and Richmond community members are not your personal banks!” Kristian Kim, a University of California (UC) Berkeley student, cried as she led a protest at the UC Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco on March 18.
Kim takes her dress off over her head in one swift motion, and steps on top of her chair, wearing undergarments covered with the words “student debt.”
“This is all I got left!” Kim shouted. She paused to reach into her bandeau top, and boldly tossed paper money at the Board of Regents sitting across from her.
As she continued to deliver her message, fellow students and Richmond community members joined her in taking off their outer layers of clothing.
“You are taking the shirts off our backs!” she yelled.
Kim paused, then signals the others to join her by chanting “Raise up Richmond, no tuition!”
The crowd chants for a minute before police enter the room in full riot gear, warning protesters that they could be subject to arrest or further police action. The crowd disperses, but leaves the Board of Regents with a haunting message: “We’ll be back, we’ll be back!”
The reason for the radical protest? Rising tuition prices.
The past few years have seen more backlash over the inflated prices of higher education than any before.
According to a report published by The College Board, nationwide public four-year college tuition has increased 3.25 times in inflation-adjusted dollars since the 1984-1985 school year. In fact, since 2000, public four-year college tuition has increased almost twofold. In California itself, the average public four-year college tuition has risen from $5,277 in the 2004-2005 school year to $9,173 in the 2014-2015 school year.
This rapid increase in tuition has culminated in over $1 trillion in nationwide student debt, ranking student loans as the second biggest source of consumer debt, exceeded only by mortgages.
The growing monstrosity that is student debt poses a threat to taxpayers because when the loans go unpaid, taxpayers are forced to subsidize the debt.
This prospect is shocking when considering that little is known about the specifics of student loan debt. In an article published by the New York Times titled “We’re Frighteningly in the Dark About Student Debt,” Susan Dynarski underscores the magnitude of the student debt predicament.
“We are remarkably ignorant about student debt,” Dynarski said in her article. “How many borrowers are delinquent on their federal loans? How does delinquency differ by amount of debt, income and education? Which colleges leave students underwater, with low earnings and large debts they can’t pay?”
Before the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, regulation of the mortgage market was sparse, which helped contribute to a collapse of the market. Now, the market is heavily monitored, but student loans remain neglected.
Since the 2008 economic crisis, the number of Americans that have at least one student loan has increased from 29 million to 40 million, with average debt levels increasing from $23,450 to $29,400, according to The Institute for College Access and Success.
This swell of student loan debt has gone far from unnoticed. Protests have erupted across the country, and nationwide movements such as Strike Debt have been created in response to the ballooning student debt that is plaguing many students.
Publicly funded universities are in a never-ending tug-of-war with their resident states over funding. When the state that a university is in decides to cut funding to said university, tuition increases and students pay the price (literally).
In fact, national student tuition now contributes more to public college funding than state fund allocation does. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), tuition accounted for 17 percent of public college revenue in 2003, as compared to 25 percent in 2012. During this time, the percentage of public college state funding fell from 32 to 23 percent. The 2008 economic crisis led every state, save for North Dakota and Wyoming, to cut funding for higher education. In California itself, funding for four-year public colleges and universities has been cut by 15.8 percent per full-time student since 2008. In this same time period, average tuition for four-year public universities in California has increased by 62 percent.
UC President Janet Napolitano plans to respond to the budget cuts to the UC system with a tuition hike that would raise tuition by five percent each year over the next five years. On Nov. 20, 2014, the UC Board of Regents approved the tuition hike on a 14-7 vote and the Regents Long-Range Financial Plan Committee on a 7-2 vote, with student regent Sadia Saifuddin and Gov. Jerry Brown as the two dissenters.
The increased revenue from tuition hikes will be used to enroll 5,000 more in-state students, maintain the university’s financial aid program and fund investments to improve in educational quality.
Brown and Napolitano have since been in deadlock over the issue of tuition hikes and state funding for the UC system. On Jan. 8, 2015, Brown informed Napolitano of his decision to allocate an additional $120 million to the university rather than the $220 million that the UC system had requested.
“We have been increasing [funding to the UC]… and $120 million is not chump change. Some parts of the budget didn’t get any increases,” Brown said.
Brown remains in opposition to divert more funding to the UC system as tuition rates increase because his plan for increasing funding to the UC system is contingent upon tuition remaining constant.
In an editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, Allysia Finley denounced the UC system for clamoring for more funding, whether it be through tuition hikes or increased state funding allocation to the UC system.
“Between 2008 and 2011, state general-fund spending on UCs dropped by about $900 million,” Finley wrote. “During that period, the regents ratcheted up in-state tuition by more than 70 percent, to $12,192 a year, from $7,126. But note that revenues from tuition and fees have increased to $3 billion from $1.7 billion, so the increase more than offset state budget cuts. And now general funding for the universities is merely $300 million below its 2007 peak.”
Part of the governor’s refusal to allocate more funding to the university is spurred by his lack of faith in how the university spends its money.
“I’ve got a whole book showing how the university is spending money it doesn’t have to,” Brown said in 2013. “Certain kinds of research, sports, gardeners, a lot of things.”
This rapid increase in tuition is making accessibility to higher education more and more limited. According to a statistical analysis undergone by Randal Olson, it is now nearly impossible for students to work their way through college. Whereas the average college student in 1979 only had to work 182 hours per year to pay for tuition, the average college student in 2013 had to work 991 hours. That’s the difference between working a part-time summer job and a full time job for half of the year.
At this point, the UC system is prioritizing spending more and expanding the universities over providing affordable education, coming at the price of the should-be beneficiaries of public education — students.
On Nov. 20, the UC Board of Regents passed Napolitano’s tuition hike plan. Less than a day later, protests against the approval of this plan sprung up across the state at several UC schools — from Berkeley to San Diego. Hundreds of students joined together to participate in marches across schools, the occupation of campus buildings, or even the disruption UC Board of Regents meetings in order to make their voices heard.
An anonymous student from UC Berkeley believes that the majority of students are opposed to the tuition hikes and agree with the message of the protests.
“For the most part, a good amount of the students disagree with the fee hikes because the allocation of the tuition fees is very misrepresented and not put towards bettering the education system within the UC, rather it is used to pay outrageous salaries for the administration,” an anonymous UC Berkeley student said.
[pullquote align=”left” speaker=”Young-Ju Lee, UC Davis”]Pulling out funds from taxes and making UC students pay more for their tuition basically defeats the purpose of going to a UC school[/pullquote]
UC Davis student and Paly alumna Young-Ju Lee believes that requiring students to pay more tuition should not be necessary to attend a public university.
“I understand that the economy isn’t at the best place right now, but pulling out funds from taxes and making UC students pay more for their tuition basically defeats the purpose of going to a UC school,” Young-Ju Lee said.
Yvette Felarca, a UC alumna also agrees that as the UC system is a public system, students should not have to put up with tuition hikes, especially without having any representation or say in the matter.
“The UC is still a public university and we intend to make it that way,” Felarca said in an interview with KRON 4 News. “ [Napolitano’s] proposal for a 25 percent fee hike is completely illegitimate, it’s undemocratic, it’s been railroaded through and it’s had no vetting or any kind of input from students or alum or anything.”
Even students who do not view the tuition hikes as a personal problem, such as Austin Leung, a Paly alumnus and current UC Berkeley student, understand how hikes are troublesome for others.
“For me, the tuition hikes aren’t really a problem,” Leung said. “However, I understand out-of-state kids already pay a ridiculous amount to attend UC’s, and that just 10 years ago, in-state tuition was dirt cheap to the point it was almost free. Also, I understand many people are in tight financial situations and that any increase of tuition just causes additional stress.”
The UC schools, which participated in the tuition hike protests, all took different approaches to the matter. Matt Talajkowski, a student at UC Santa Cruz, believes that although the protest strategies each UC school uses are different, they are still unified as one against the tuition hikes.
“Each UC [school] which participated in the protests was in solidarity with each other, but each used different tactics,” Talajkowski said.
The schools are holding protests, but it is hard to decipher how much effect the protests have. UC San Diego student and Paly alumnus JJ Kadifa feels that though the protests are definitely spreading the message that students are against tuition hikes, their message may not be sinking in for Napolitano or the UC Board of Regents.
“The protests are definitely spreading attention of the issue at hand, but neither the UC [Board of] Regents or the governor seem to be listening to the students,” Kadifa said.
Kim believes that the protest at the UC Board of Regents meeting she participated in recently was effective. She feels that it was able to show Napolitano’s disconnect with students in the UC system, especially after her rude remark during the protest, calling the protest “crap.”
“This most recent protest which I was a part of was effective in exposing the vast disconnect between the Regents and the student body,” Kim said. “I think as students of the UC that’s something we very well know to exist, but the fact that Napolitano’s hot mic caught her little ‘crap’ comment, it was successful in the sense that it made that disconnect very explicit.”
Leung agrees that protests help show the gap between Napolitano and the UC students but does not think that the protests will ultimately change her paths of action.
“In terms of effectiveness, I think they [protests] do bring attention to Napolitano, tell her that not everyone agrees with her policies, and make her think about her decisions,” Leung said. “I don’t think it will sway her decision, but the protests definitely aren’t pointless.”
So, where does the disconnect between students and Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents occur?
[pullquote align=”right” speaker=”JJ Kadifa, UC San Diego”]The UC [Board of] Regents and the governor are using the student’s tuition as a bargaining chip rather than acting for the interest of the students[/pullquote]
Kadifa does not agree with the recent decisions of Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents as he believes that they are not acting in the students’ best interest.
“I disagree with the recent tuition hikes because the UC [Board of] Regents and the governor are using the student’s tuition as a bargaining chip rather than acting for the interest of the students,” Kadifa said.
Kim believes that Napolitano runs the public UC system as a private business, and is an example of the lack of respect students within the system are given.
“Napolitano runs the UC like a private business, which is completely contradictory to the public nature of the institution,” Kim said. “I just don’t like the way she runs this profit machine as well as who she is and what she’s done in the past, she’s just a manifestation of the lack of respect within the UC system for the population it supposedly serves.”
Leung, on the other hand, understands why Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents feel that there is a need to increase tuition, as he acknowledges that the state may not be able to provide enough funding for the UC system.
“The only problem, is that the money needs to come from somewhere,” Leung said. “We either can choose to cut funding to the universities, which would not be cool, or we have to take money from the state and/or the students. Since California already has money issues, I understand the need to raise tuition.”
Still, many students do not agree with Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents. They instead visualize solutions for funding the UC system which do not include tuition hikes for students.
Felarca and the students she works with feel that not only must tuition hikes be halted and that funding for the UC schools should come from the state instead of the students, but she also believes Napolitano should step down from her position.
“We want to send a message to Janet Napolitano, that she should resign,” Felarca said in an interview with KRON 4 News. “We are building a movement to defend public education, to stop privatization [of the UC system], but [also to] make sure that we stop these fee hikes and get more funding from the state of California for what the UC [system] and future generations of students deserve in this state.”
[pullquote align=”left” speaker=”Kristian Kim, UC Berkeley”]I think a lot of things have to change, but ultimately, the state needs to reinvest in public education.[/pullquote]
Kim agrees with Felarca on the terms that public education must be defended, that the state must reinvest in public education and that in theory, public education should be free for the public and provided for by the state.
“Ideally, the notion of a public institution, specifically education, is that it is funded by the state, which essentially means it’s funded by the public because that’s where the taxes come from,” Kim said. “Students would have their tuition paid for and being paid for as they’re attending the university. I think a lot of things have to change, but ultimately, the state needs to reinvest in public education.”
Tuition on the rise also means rising levels of student loans and debt. Phoebe So, a Paly alumna and UC Berkeley student feels that students may find it harder to attain higher education due to the looming presence of student loans and debt.
“Currently, higher education is incredibly important and beneficial, however, with student debt on the rise and being notorious for being difficult to pay off, students with monetary restraints are finding it harder to receive a good education that won’t set them up with significant financial burdens in the future,” So said.
The notion that public education should be free for students, mentioned by Kim, has provoked the start of movements such as Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Student debt due to inflated tuition prices, as mentioned by So, is a problem which exists nationwide. Strike Debt claims to be a nationwide movement of debt resisters fighting for economic justice and democratic freedom.
Strike Debt has started a project, named the Rolling Jubilee, which helps those who are in debt due to finance and access basic necessities such as housing, medical care and education. The Rolling Jubilee does this by buying debt from banks for at a discounted price with help from donations and charities and then simply abolishing it instead of making those who owe money for basic necessities pay back their debt. At first glance, this concept may seem foreign, but banks are willing to sell debt to collectors at discounted prices to ensure that they get at least some portion of the money they have loaned back. If those who are in debt completely default on their loans, or file bankruptcy — the bank will not get a single cent back.
As of March 23, the Rolling Jubilee has raised $701,317 to pay off the discounted debt they buy, and has abolished $31,982,455.76 of debt. Strike Debt has also started another initiative specific to student loans, called The Debt Collective.
“If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, the bank owns you,” reads The Debt Collective website. “If you owe the bank a trillion dollars, you own the bank. Together, we own the bank.”
The Debt Collective aims to foster a community where people can come together to strike against student debt. Together, the community has pledged not to pay $167,672,922 of debt.
“We have one thing to say,” reads The Debt Collective website. “We owe you nothing.”
Though Napolitano’s recent tuition hike plan was approved, the future of tuition for public universities, funding of the UC system from the state of California and regulations of student debt remain unclear. Decisions about these topics in future years may be influenced by factors such as the rise of organizations such as Strike Debt, the opposition between Napolitano and Brown over funding for UCs from the state and more access to free online and community college education.
Regardless, Felarca finds it important to protect the public university system with the help of the younger generation.
“We’re fighting for the dignity and equality of the people of this state,” Felarca said in an interview with KRON 4 News. “Young people and students are a force in this country that are among the strongest force to make a real difference and change, to defend public education.”