FOR the nation's public university students, the tuition squeeze is on. Widespread state budget shortfalls are prompting not only tuition hikes but also sharp cuts in student aid, faculty, and programs in many states.
The proposed new state budget in California, for instance, a state with a longtime commitment to low or no tuition, may send required student fees up by as much as 40 percent. The state revenue picture in Massachusetts is so grim that some state colleges may be forced to shut down.
At the City University of New York (CUNY), the nation's third-largest university and one which charged no tuition at all for 129 years after its founding in 1847, tuition is slated to go up by more than $700 (to a $1,950 total) in less than one year's time.
The net effect of these moves is to accelerate what one education leader terms an already fast-moving trend to bill the public college student directly for more of the cost of instruction.
Allan Ostar, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), says the student share of tuition costs is already up to 25 percent in most public institutions and in some cases reaches 35 percent. Traditionally, tuition paid about 20 percent of the public college bill. Charges are up, he notes, at a moment when student financial aid is harder to find. States are cutting back at a time when Congress favors loans over grants.
``Unless and until state finances and the national economy begin to improve, I think it's going to be a pretty bleak picture for low-income students,'' says Mr. Ostar. ``And I don't see any reversal [coming] of the trend in public institutions to shift more of the cost to students...''
Not that students are accepting the changes without a fight. Perhaps nowhere have the protests been stronger than those waged by students at CUNY in New York City. That institution first charged tuition in 1976, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and Washington insisted on tuition in exchange for a federal guarantee for the city's bonds.
For much of the last three weeks students have staged massive protests - in some cases seizing buildings and shutting down classes - at more than half of CUNY's 21 campuses. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a longtime advocate of free tuition who two years ago vetoed a $200 increase in CUNY tuition approved by the legislature, now proposes a $500 increase for fall. Students are not letting him off the hook easily.
``It's an issue of race and class,'' insists Steve Sifaneck, a CUNY Ph.D. candidate in sociology. He says most students are minorities from working-class families. As he sees it, the state would make a far better investment if it spent more on their education and less on prison construction and other after-the-fact efforts to deal with social problems.
``I think Cuomo is really dealing with a time bomb,'' says Mr. Sifaneck. ``I think he's got a possible revolution on his hands.''
CUNY officials support the student goal but not the choice of tactics.
``The tuition hike is not something we seek,'' insists CUNY spokeswoman Rita Rodin. She says the university has been working with state legislators to persuade them of the harm that would be done by the tuition hike and other cuts linked to the planned $92 million slice in state aid to the university. New York City, which funds the university's seven community colleges and is also facing a severe budget shortfall, intends to reduce its help to CUNY as well.
``We're facing cuts from both the city and the state,'' notes Ms. Rodin.
Students such as Sifaneck defend the attempted student takeover as a ``desperation'' move to focus legislator attention on the problem.
However, many students became concerned that they might lose credit for the semester's work and complained of intimidation. Late last week at the Borough of Manhattan Community College about 200 counter-protesters, led by nursing students still in their blue and white uniforms, effectively took back the campus. Police evicted protesters on other campuses in response to court orders. Though students still occupy some buildings as of this writing, much of the CUNY system is now back to normal.
``We're optimistic about finishing the semester, and we plan to extend it by two weeks,'' says Charles De Cicco, a spokesman for City College of New York, one of the few campuses not yet back in full operation.
The debate continues as to how valuable the CUNY protest was and whether it should have focused more directly on legislators in the Albany capitol. ``Personally I feel the whole thing was a bad move - politically stupid and morally indefensible,'' says one CUNY faculty member in the humanities who declined to be named. ``I don't think it's going to change any minds in Albany, and I think tuition here is a lot lower than at public campuses in most other states.''
The State University of New York, which like CUNY had no tuition hike for the last eight years, faces a similar state-ordered $500 increase in the fall, bringing its tuition charge to $2,150. Yet only a small number of students on two of SUNY's 29 campuses staged protests.
``Nobody's happy to have tuition go up,'' comments SUNY associate vice chancellor Patrick Hunt, ``but I think students and parents realized that without that, the quality of education would go down.''
``I've seen some students support tuition increases when they realized that appropriations cutbacks were making it difficult for them to get the required courses they needed to graduate,'' comments the AASCU's Ostar. Staying five years clearly costs more than four years, he notes.
Still, Ostar says there is almost a direct correlation between the cost of tuition (and required fees) and the extent to which high school graduates pursue more education. In California, he says about 80 percent of the graduates go on, compared to a national average of about 60 percent.
``In high tuition states, a very small percentage goes on to higher education,'' Ostar says. ``Low-income students in particular are very price-sensitive.''