The Elusive Education 

Students Fight Back

The cost of attending a school in the University of California or California State University systems has risen inexorably recently, with tuition nearly doubling in just the past six years. With fees outpacing both inflation and financial aid, even students from middle-class families are struggling to obtain bachelor's degrees.

Student leaders say that the California legislature has done little to halt rising costs because students are not a powerful constituency. As funding for higher education is one of the few discretionary items in the perpetually deficient state budget, it continually gets cut. And in light of the state's $14 billion budget deficit, even more cuts to education are expected in the future. Lawmakers count on campuses to make up for declining state investment with higher fees from students.

That could change next year, however, if a student-sponsored ballot initiative passes that would freeze tuition for five years for resident undergraduates at UC and CSU schools. The group behind the initiative, Students and Families for Tuition Relief Now, launched its campaign in November and has volunteers working on thirty campuses throughout the state. They're funded in part by the Greenlining Action Fund, created by the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization in Berkeley. They need to collect 434,000 signatures between January and April 17 to get the initiative on the November ballot. After the five-year period, tuition increases would be tied to inflation.

"We can't get the legislature to pass a fee policy," said Jason Robo, one of the student activists behind the drive. "We can't get the UC Regents and CSU Trustees to demand more state investment. Students need to try something new."

If the measure becomes law, the funding deficiency created by the tuition freeze would be covered by a 1 percent tax on individuals with an income of more than $1 million. Student leaders argue that businesses in California should support higher education because they need an educated work force. Recently, they met with leaders in Silicon Valley — who would surely be hit by the millionaire tax — to seek their support. A lead organizer for the group, Jeremy Bearer-Friend, said the meetings have been "positive."

Annual tuition at UC Berkeley has reached $8,400; it's slightly less at other UCs. Tuition at the CSUs costs about $3,200 annually. And costs are slated to go up 8 percent at UC and 10 percent at CSU in 2008.

Steep tuition hikes were guaranteed by a 2004 deal between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and top UC and CSU administrators to raise fees by as much as 10 percent a year until 2011. In exchange, they would be guaranteed steady — if deficient — funding levels from the state.

That so-called "Higher Education Compact" — which was not approved by the legislature — caused an uproar. Bearer-Friend said that if the student ballot initiative becomes law, it would override the governor's agreement.

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