After a few agonizing days of wondering if they would be squeezed to the tune of $342 in yet another tuition increase, UC students were free to breathe a momentary sigh of relief: On Wednesday, Jan. 24, the UC regents, faced with vehement student protests, decided to delay the vote on the proposed tuition increase for all students until sometime in May, and the vote on increases to nonresident supplemental tuition until March.
Though this may seem a “victory” for struggling students, any sense of calm or ease of mind gained here is dampened by the knowledge that, if alternative solutions for satiating the UC system’s perpetually growing financial needs are not found, the proposed increase will simply come back around again as an increasingly likely option. With many students continually worrying about affordability and student loans, the UC regents need to use the time they’ve bought with this delay to seek other ways of addressing the need for funding while maintaining an affordable education for their students — and tuition increases need to be off the list.
This funding problem never seems to go away — despite the cool $1.2 billion in funding increases from the state since 2012 and the tuition increase in January last year — and the regents cite a lower ratio of available funds per student as a key factor. It is easy for students, who fundamentally sit at the center of this debate, to become cynical each time a tuition increase is proposed. If it doesn’t pass, we’re told the UCs won’t have the money they need to maintain or improve the current quality of education, and if it does pass, our future financial security, food security and housing security get less and less certain. Let’s not forget, of course, the rising student debt and the growing costs of higher education this leaves for future prospective students, who may be deterred from entering the UC system because of the lack of affordability. From a student’s perspective, neither option is appealing.
As difficult as it may be, then, there need to be more efforts on behalf of both the UC regents and the state to figure out a way of funding the UC system while also ensuring that the students can still afford the cost.
This will require a multifaceted approach, starting with dedicated efforts for the UC to find where its spending is inefficient or wasteful, to make sure each budgetary decision is made in the interest of furthering students’ education and question the value of decisions whose benefit to students is not immediately obvious (especially with last year’s controversial audit — which revealed a reserve of money that some critics accused of being a “slush fund” — and the interference with it still fresh in memory). Simply put, the regents need to go over their spending with a fine-toothed comb and figure out what more they can do to make the most efficient use of the money they already have before shaking students down for even more. And as important as the money is, the UC also needs to address the longstanding concerns and damaged trust of the students — many of whom, as suggested by the immense outpouring of opposition to the proposed increase, may feel like these tuition increases indicate a lack of care for students’ struggles to make ends meet even with tuition as it is now.
The state also has an interest in ensuring that the UC, and other university systems, are properly funded in order to make sure that those who want to take on the responsibilities of pursuing higher education are able to afford it. Governor Jerry Brown was justified in opposing the tuition hike and urging the regents to drive costs down, but there is also a need to meet the UC system in the middle and see how the state can assist in making sure that universities are properly funded, thus (hopefully) obviating the need for yet another costly tuition hike. Given higher education’s role in empowering social mobility for many and in forming tomorrow’s leaders, the state needs to do its share to make sure that the universities are getting the money they need, provided that the universities are spending it reasonably and efficiently.
Students shouldn’t be saddled with even greater tuition costs when many are already struggling to fund their college careers as it is. Insofar as it’s possible, the UC regents need to put forward as much effort as they can to ensure that they cut inefficient and unnecessary spending, center their priorities on ensuring the academic success of all students and, finally, to make sure that this is done as transparently as possible so that students can hold them accountable for it — that must be their priority, above all else. The state also has an obligation to make sure that the universities are properly funded in the interest of maintaining the high-quality education they provide. Ultimately, the onus shouldn’t keep coming down onto the students to perpetually make up the difference on an ever-increasing bill, not when many are already struggling to afford their education on top of staying afloat on their studies.