When the University of California approved massive tuition hikes in the early '90s, students staged giant protests and took over Cal's Moffitt Library. But this time around, after UC regents voted to boost student fees by as much as 30 percent, infuriated students responded in a more orderly fashion: they sued.
Maybe that's what officials get for aiming the lion's share of the fee increases at professional students, those studying graduate disciplines such as medicine, nursing, and -- more to the point -- law. This week, eight professional students, including three from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, will go to court asking a judge to rule that they don't have to pay heightened fees this fall. A second part of the class-action suit will ask for the return of the extra fees they already paid for spring and summer sessions.
The students' argument is simple. They say that on a variety of brochures and on the UC Office of the President's Web site, the system explicitly promised that students' professional degree fees would not increase during their tenure. While the suing students agree that UC has the right to adjust fees for each new class of incoming scholars, they say that one reason they chose to attend UC schools was because they believed the price of their education would remain constant. Worse, they say the UC system failed to alert students of the fee increases promptly, forcing them to cough up extra money at the last minute.
The UC system has boosted student fees three times since last December. The UC regents voted in an 11.2 percent increase in December, but the students claim they were not notified until February, well after they had registered and paid for spring classes. At the end of May, fees were raised for the summer session, but the students say they were not alerted until five days before classes started. Then in late July, the regents unleashed the real whammy, a 25 percent increase, plus an additional 5 percent that could be tacked on by each campus' president.
Fees for professional students are generally higher than those for undergrads, so they've borne the brunt of each increase. Payment for the fall session is due August 15 -- just two days after the injunction hearing, making it touch-and-go for some students who are putting off registering for next fall until they hear the judge's decision. And while the UC system recently claimed that financial aid grants will absorb the total fee hike for undergraduates whose families make less than $60,000 a year, and defray half for those whose families make under $90,000, these aid offers don't apply to professional students.
The students' transition from livid to litigious began with UCSF medical student Janet Lee, who wrote UC's president that the fee hike violated the university's promises. In response, she got a letter stating that the regents can change their own rules. "I was kind of upset and I didn't know the legal channels to go through," she remembers. Then she ran across Boalt Hall student Mo Kashmiri at a meeting of the University of California Students Association, a network for student leaders from the various UC campuses. Kashmiri already had a reputation at Cal as an activist, having won his post as a student senator on a single-item platform: no fee hikes. Better yet, he was two-thirds of the way through a law degree. It didn't take Kashmiri much time after hearing Lee's story to render an expert opinion: "I was, like, 'Hey, that's not legal! They can't do that. '"
The two hooked up with some similarly minded students, and sent a letter to the UC regents, spoke at their meetings, and attended a lobby day at the state Capitol in April. They launched a Web site, EducationIsaRight.org. And finally, they contacted a sympathetic law firm and filed suit.
What will the rate hikes do to the students? Kashmiri, the eldest child in a family with three college-age students and only one working parent, already funnels his student aid checks to his younger brothers. He estimates he'll be $100,000 in debt by the time he graduates, and worries that if he can't stop the fee hike he'll have to take a few years off to work and save money. Or take Benson Cohen, another Boalt plaintiff who is looking at a $70,000 debt himself, who is financially independent and next year will make ends meet by working as a graduate student instructor, teaching fifty political science students on top of preparing for the bar exam. "Between that, the money I earn this summer, and taking out the full complement of student loans, I should be able to complete my degree," he says, somewhat anxiously. Or take Lee, who lucked out by winning a fellowship that will give her a research year paid for by UCSF. But once that year is over, she says, she's not sure how she'll pay the increased fees. Although she has applied for scholarships, she estimates that she may end up $85,000 in debt.
That said, all three acknowledge that they are the more fortunate students in California's public higher education system. In July, trustees for the Cal State University system also voted in a 30 percent fee increase on top of a previous 10 percent increase. "The biggest problem isn't even at the UC," Kashmiri admits. "It's the CSUs and the community colleges who are taking the real big hits. There's a lot of students in the CSUs and the community colleges who won't be back."
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