Students must act to end tuition hikes

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OK, California. We get it. This whole “access” to higher education thing you were talking about is outdated. The world is changing, and so should education in California, right?

I’d like to think there was a time in California or some other U.S. state when education wasn’t just a privilege, but also a right. After two wars in the 20th century, there seemed to be a lot of emphasis placed on education in the 1960s, which led to the California Master Plan for Higher Education. This plan, more than just a single document, laid out a general framework for higher education in this state that should still hold.

But it doesn’t. The prospect of a tuition-free college education, even if it was never codified or guaranteed, still meant “cheap” for a lot of people. But as fiscal crises hit California in the 90s and again in the last five years, things changed.

We’ve gotten to a point now where we are content with tuition hikes so long as they do not exceed 10 percent in any given year, according to a 2004 agreement between CSUN Chancellor Charles Reed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Beyond the hilarity of such lowered expectations in a state that used to be defined as progressive, the role of students – or lack thereof – in that “compact” should be the frame in which we view any deal made between our “starve the beast” governor and his buddy Reed.

The CSU Board of Trustees will discuss a proposed 2006-07 budget at a meeting in Long Beach tomorrow morning. Included in that budget are calls for more fee increases, this time an 8 percent hike for undergraduate students and a 10 percent hike for graduate students. Since the percent increases aren’t in the 30s, which they were a few years back, nobody’s panicked. Again, talk about lowered expectations.

Leaders from the California State Students Association have organized a 23-campus student rally of support to travel down to Long Beach tomorrow for the meeting. The idea is to flood the place with people who can respectfully make the point that students aren’t too happy with the consistency in which fee hikes have been occurring. I presume similar trips are planned every year. This year is special, however, but not for good reason.

It feels like we’re at a turning point, if we haven’t already made the turn. How much longer can students justifiably complain about student fee hikes before someone calls them out and says, “Wait, when have there not been student fee hikes?” That day is coming soon, as budgetary lapses in higher education now automatically equate to tuition increases, as if no other form of revenue existed or should exist.

The mass of students busing down to Long Beach today from the 23 CSU campuses can make a difference. If student trustee, a voting member of the board, sees a tremendous student force at the meeting, he might change his fee increase vote to no. He’s backed into a corner on this fee increase thing, and from the perspective of “no other revenue,” voting yes seems like an option. His no vote would be a symbolic victory.

Still, the case needs to be made to the California Legislature, where state fiscal policy is determined. It is clear that neither the governor or the CSU Chancellor are willing to ask for more money for the CSU system, which has literally built California’s middle class from the ground up since its inception more than 30 years ago.

As long as CSU leaders work within the confines of a “we live with what we got” mentality, without the faintest glimmer of hope that maybe the source of higher education revenue is what is really failing us, we’re all in trouble. Admittedly, tax and spend in education doesn’t always work, but if it’s balanced with a strict emphasis on conservative management, it definitely can. Install a freakin’ CPA as Chancellor. Whatever it takes.

CSUN has done a good job at adapting to the cuts by stepping up its fundraising efforts. But like any naïve war general, it’s about time we open up the battle on two fronts by showing some concern for what made us step up fundraising in the first place.

To do that, we need our next bus trip to head north to Sacramento.

Ryan Denham can be reached at editor@csun.edu.