Anger and anxiety over fee hike at University of California

The University of California Thursday decided on a 32 percent fee hike to make up for slashed state funding. Student protests flare on campuses.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Demonstrators chant as they sit on a road on the UCLA campus to block a van holding attendees from driving away from the Covel Commons building where University of California regents were scheduled to vote on a 32 percent student fee increase, on Thursday.
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Student anger is still smoldering on the sidewalk between Sproul Hall and Covel Commons on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). On Thursday, carrying placards reading "Save Public Education" and "Yes, We Can Take Back Our University," hundreds of students here protested the University of California regents' decision to approve an overall 32 percent increase in student fees for next year.

By evening, the crush of news trucks and handheld placards had dwindled here. But Friday morning, student ire revived at UC Berkeley, where about 50 students took over a campus building, shouting slogans from a second-floor window through a bullhorn, according to news reports.

Most students agree with the protesters if not with their tactics, says UCLA sociology/Asian studies major Lucy Tseng, who complained of protesters "going through our dormitories screaming and pulling the fire alarms."

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Ms. Tseng, in her second year here, pays $7,500 of her own money for tuition now but is facing nearly a $11,000 bill next fall.

"My future education is definitely in jeopardy," says Tseng, who already works three jobs. She is also worried about the people who won't even apply to the university now because they can't afford it.

On a bench just outside the student union cafeteria Thursday, three students huddled around a laptop, watching a video of University of California President Mark Yudof explaining why the regents had no choice.

Faced with a budget deficit that is expected to grow to $1.2 billion in 2010/2011 – largely due to slashed state funding – the university has already cut pay, laid off 2,000 people, reduced supplies, and cut late hours for libraries, he said.

"We are down over a billion dollars, and the state is down another $20 billion," Mr. Yudof said, "[T]his is just a situation where the student's rightful expectations just exceed the resources of the state of California."

Fee hikes for all students

The fee increases include a mid-year fee hike of $585, or 15 percent, for undergraduates and graduate professional school students. In addition, all students will see another 15 percent increase, or $1,334 total, in summer 2010.

The regents also approved increases in professional degree fees for 2010-11 that range from $280 to $5,696.

The fee hikes, which apply to California residents in the 10-campus UC system, one of the country's largest, are expected to bring in $505 million.

Students on the UCLA campus aren't convinced the hikes are necessary.

"They are wasting money all over this campus with lighting and heating unused facilities," says an international exchange student who wouldn't give his name. "And they won't show us the books to prove they are in this financial mess. It's frustrating, and we just don't believe them."

But California's university subsidies have been declining for some years to below those for other state-subsidized university systems, some observers note.

"Now, there is no way out," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "Worst possible time is during a recession when everyone wants to go back to school. Federal money can't make up the difference and it will be worse next year."

Voters are partly to blame, say others.

"The fee hike is drastic, but where else will the money come from?" asks John Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. "After the state raised taxes this year, voters rejected a measure to extend the tax increases."

Bad time for school fee hikes

Colleges and universities are finding it harder to raise money from alumni and other donors. At the same time, the recession has increased the demand for financial aid.

"Red ink is rising, and so is unemployment. There is no happy ending to this story," says Mr. Pitney.

This is the worst time to be increasing the cost of education, agrees Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Center for Governmental Studies.

"The financial well-being of many parents, who would normally be able to help their children pay for college tuition, is now in jeopardy," she says. "Some students and prospective students can only look to themselves in paying for the cost of an education."

However, UC president Yudof has said that families making under $80,000 will continue to be taken care of.

Some of the protesting students at UCLA and UC Davis were arrested Thursday for disturbing the peace. But Yudof says he doesn't blame them.

"I used to be a law professor and I understand that people have a right in a democracy to express themselves," he said, "They are not expected to roll over."

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