As Cal Poly students ventured off to summer vacations, internships, jobs and other endeavors, a group of student advocates has started lobbying the state to drastically boost funding for the California State University system instead of continuing to raise tuition and campus-based fees that push many students deeper into debt.
Students for Quality Education, with chapters at 19 of the 23 CSU campuses, says its goal is to return the university system to its original mission, providing California students with access to an affordable, quality education.
According to the organization, undergraduate tuition and fees across the system have skyrocketed by more than 180 percent since 2002.
At Cal Poly, tuition and fees have more than doubled in the past decade, now totaling $9,075 per year.
Under a new CSU proposal, students could be faced with steady tuition increases each year, tied to inflation.
SQE met in Los Angeles last week and has another meeting scheduled for August to fight the proposed tuition hikes and to address state legislation that affects the CSU. The group also holds weekly summer web conferences and will attend a CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach on July 17 and 18 to spread its message.
The SQE works in conjunction with the California Faculty Association, the CSU’s faculty union, to advocate for educational rights. Cal Poly’s organization consists of about 30 active student members.
“We want to stop the trend of putting the financial burden on the backs of students,” said Mick Bruckner, a Cal Poly SQE leader who attended the Los Angeles conference. “We want to keep higher public education from becoming privatized.”
Demonstrations at various campuses are planned for the fall. The Cal Poly SQE group has discussed holding a hunger strike as part of an initiative to increase funding for women’s and gender studies and ethnic studies.
A funding problem
As a way to combat funding shortfalls, the CSU released a draft Sustainable Financial Model in May that proposes a controversial annual increase in tuition tied to inflation. The model also promotes expanding fundraising efforts, partnering with private businesses to build new facilities, and seeking additional state funds to extend academic programs year-round at some campuses.
The Sustainable Financial Model will be addressed by the CSU Board of Trustees in open meetings in coming months. No decision has been made to formally adopt the plan, which was authored by a task force created by the Chancellor’s Office that includes representatives from 10 campuses.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has endorsed the model as the best way to finance the system into the future.
The Sustainable Financial Model notes that in the recession years from 2008 through 2011, the state cut $1 billion in general funds to the CSU, a one-third cut that forced the system to institute layoffs and furloughs, raise tuition and put off repairs and building needs.
Since then, state funding has increased — in 2015-16 the state fully funded the CSU’s requested budget of nearly $3 billion.
Still, the CSU remains nearly $100 million below prerecession levels for state funding, according to CSU officials.
The Sustainable Financial Model notes that funding levels “remain well below historic levels” and warns that even if the CSU follows its recommendations, the state must invest more resources in the system.
“To do otherwise will lead to untenable conditions of decreasing access and educational quality, and increasing costs to students,” the model notes.
Students for Quality Education views the Sustainable Financial Model as a reaction to the recession that will “radically restructure CSU into a more corporate, privatized university system.” The model’s proposed tuition bumps contradict the original vision for California’s educational system, the group says.
“I think we should be working toward free tuition,” said Cal Poly SQE student Erica Hudson. “That may sound pretty radical, but that was in the original invention of the CSU system, so lower-income students could afford education without having to break the bank with their family, or not even being able to go because they can’t afford it.”
Worrying about debt
Hudson, who’s entering her senior year in the fall as a journalism major, has already racked up $22,000 in student loan debt. She expects that total to grow to more than $30,000 by graduation, a burden she worries about every day.
While at Cal Poly, Hudson has worked part-time jobs in student housing, food purchasing, baby-sitting, clothing sales and makeup to help pay for books, rent and food.
“It makes it really hard to focus on school when you’re having to sacrifice your time to work,” Hudson said. “There are students on campus who don’t have to work, and I can see how advantageous that is to dedicate your time to getting good grades, and even your friends.”
Hudson said that “once college presidents figured out students can take out federally subsidized loans, they abandoned the idea of free education.”
“If we don’t put pressure on university administrators, nothing will ever change,” she added.
A Cal Poly education now costs $9,075 per year in registration fees, compared with $4,349 in the 2006-07 school year. The estimated total annual cost for a student to attend Cal Poly is $26,148, including books, transportation, rent and other living costs.
Moreover, the private gifts to CSU campuses encouraged in the Sustainable Financial Model come with strings attached — often benefiting the donor’s favorite program rather than programs that may need funding the most.
Hudson cites the $20 million donation to Cal Poly by former Apple executive Peter Oppenheimer and his wife, Mary Beth, as a recent example of how donation money can influence the operational direction.
The donation was designated for specific building purposes such as a new agriculture events center, a farm store and equestrian pavilion, as well as modernizing and expanding facilities and equipment at the animal teaching and research center.
“The College of Liberal Arts doesn’t get these kinds of big donations, but that education is just as important and it’s one of the biggest colleges at the university,” Hudson said. “We’re pushing for more funding for ethnic studies. There’s not a single tenure faculty here in women’s and gender studies. Those things need to change.”
Tackling funding for Cal Poly
Armstrong said he believes the Sustainable Financial Model is “the best way to garner the most state support.”
“The view that implementing the Sustainable Financial Model or increasing tuition in small amounts will ruin the CSU simply is not based on fact,” Armstrong wrote in May in a letter to SQE, in response to a protest by the students.
The CSU’s argument for smaller, steady tuition jumps is that they’d be easier for students and families to plan for, rather than unexpected tuition spikes such as 10 percent increases implemented in each of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 academic years to make up for recession shortfalls.
“State dollars represent a small percentage of our overall budget at Cal Poly and other CSU campuses,” Armstrong wrote. “This unfortunate reality requires us to focus on potential solutions and not dream of the return of full funding from the state.”
Cal Poly’s operating budget was $289.1 million in 2015-16, of which $174.6 million came from student tuition and campus-based fees, while $114.4 million was allocated by the state.
That compares with a more balanced breakdown in 2009-10, when the state funding allocation to Cal Poly was $106.3 million and student fees accounted for $107.9 million.
The university has garnered a number of grants and has raised campus-based fees to help cover costs.
Armstrong said the majority of Cal Poly students have supported that funding structure, with 57 percent voting in favor of the most recent Student Success Fee, implemented in 2012.
Those fees supplement the campus budget to help pay for instructional costs and fill the gaps in state funding, making it easier for students to get the classes they need to graduate. Cal Poly students each now pay nearly $800 per year in success fees.
SQE counters that the more than 40 percent who voted against the fees a few years ago make up an important group.
“I think that speaks to the demographics of Cal Poly,” Bruckner said. “There seems to be a majority of Cal Poly students who can say, ‘My family makes enough money. This won’t affect me.’ But what about the rest?”
SQE noted that spending on administrators at Cal Poly rose 55 percent between 2010 and 2015, which they believe was an improper priority.
But those allocations helped make up for the recession-related cuts, “replacing many of those lost administrative and support staff positions, which were originally eliminated at a disproportionate rate,” said Matt Lazier, Cal Poly’s spokesman.
Cal Poly officials also say that lobbying for state funds is the role of the CSU staff and not Armstrong.
Lazier said Cal Poly offers one of “the most affordable options for higher education in the U.S. — public or private — and among the best for return on investment.”
“The university ranks sixth among California’s public institutions and 54th among all U.S. universities in the latest Forbes list of best values in higher education,” he said.
CSU’s tuition increase plan
The CSU’s tuition rate, which applies to all 23 campuses (aside from campus-specific fees), has remained flat the past four years.
The system has no plans to raise tuition in the coming school year, though discussions on future increases under the proposed financial model are expected at the CSU Board of Trustees meetings, likely in the fall.
The governor’s approved budget includes an increased allocation of $154 million to the CSU above its $2.98 billion 2015-16 funding level.
“We have teams in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., who are focused on budget and legislative advocacy,” said CSU spokeswoman Toni Molle. “They not only advocate for funding, but also for state and federal aid to open access and make college attainable for first-generation and low-income students.”
SQE’s future plans
SQE students kicked off their systemwide protests of the Sustainable Financial Model in May with a mock funeral to the death of the CSU system.
A measure to continue Proposition 30, which voters passed in 2012 to help fill funding gaps, will appear on the November ballot.
The measure, which expires in 2018, taxes Californians with incomes higher than $250,000 per year (the initiative also had an expired, four-year quarter-cent sales tax hike) and helped stave off $250 million in potential CSU budget cuts that could have led to even higher fee increases for students in recent years.
The group hopes to build coalitions to try to undo Proposition 13, which limits the amount of property taxes that Californians pay. The measure, passed by voters in 1978, has reduced tax revenue for California by billions of dollars — missing revenue that SQE said could go to schools and other public services.
“In his letter, Armstrong is basically saying we’re naive about how CSU money works,” Bruckner said. “We simply don’t agree with him that money is generated and allocated in a way that ensures access to all students.”