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College Tuition Hike in California Sparks Protests

November 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Students in California got a firsthand lesson Thursday in the cost of their state's budget crisis, as University of California leaders approved a 32 percent tuition hike for undergraduates to make up for lost financing. Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was shades of days past at the University of California at Berkeley today: students occupying a building and barricading themselves inside.

PROTESTER: This is not your ’60s Berkeley sit-in.

SPENCER MICHELS: This time, they weren’t protesting war, but a massive tuition hike approved yesterday.

PROTESTERS: Fired up! We can’t take it no more!

SPENCER MICHELS: Similar protests erupted yesterday, as hundreds of students marched at the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles.

PROTESTER: I don’t know if I can afford to come back to UCLA next year.

SPENCER MICHELS: But student outrage was not enough to dissuade the board of regents that governs the 10 schools under the University of California umbrella. Faced with declining state support and an unbalanced state budget, the members voted to raise undergraduate tuition by $2,500, to more than $10,000 per year, across the U.C. system.

It now costs three times as much as it did 10 years ago to attend University of California schools. And that’s not including housing, board and books. As a result, many of the more than 200,000 students in the system say they may be priced out of an education.

KARISSA COGNATA, UCLA student: No, my sister is starting college next year. We can’t afford it.

SPENCER MICHELS: So, what do you do?

KARISSA COGNATA: I will have to take out a huge loan and be paying it off for the rest of my life.

Education in jeopardy

SPENCER MICHELS: The anger played out in different ways as the regents convened Thursday. Some students peacefully occupied a building on the UCLA campus. Others faced off with police outside the board meeting and briefly tried to enter the meeting hall. Board members and staff were caught inside for hours, as the protests continued. The university system president, Mark Yudof, emerged later under guard.

The tuition hike is part of California's larger budget drama. The state is $6.3 billion in the red this year, and faces shortfalls of $20 billion a year over each of the next five years. That's forced the university system to absorb major funding cuts and to put a partial freeze on hiring, as some professors are being lured by rival universities.

We caught up with president Yudof today in the San Francisco Bay area.

MARK YUDOF, president, University of California: Well, I think it does hurt, but we have very few choices. We have half as much money to spend per student from the state as we did 1990. We had $16,000 per student in 1990, less than $8,000 today. So, the library hours are shorter. We have laid off a couple of thousand people, probably be laying off more. We have furloughs. We have fee increases.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some students and faculty are demonstrating and saying that the salaries of administrators are too high, and, if they were lower, that would solve some of the problem.

MARK YUDOF: You know, those are just words, and they're not accurate. We're they're not overpaid. They're probably over 20 percent behind the national averages. The faculty is probably 15 percent behind. And other groups are closer to, you know, the competition.

So, it it's flat-out not true. If you make less that $70,000 a year, under our programs, you will not pay one dime in what other people call tuition and we call fees, not a dime, not only that you won't pay the addition, but you won't pay the core of that. And if you're up to $120,000, you will get a substantial break.

Money woes unlikely to end soon

SPENCER MICHELS: But that argument has failed to stop ongoing marches. In late September, a 10,000-strong rally took place at Berkeley, the system's crown jewel.

NATALIE WILLIAMS, Berkeley student: We need to make a statement about valuing education. And we also need to be in solidarity together.

SPENCER MICHELS: On a campus known for its history of protests, faculty and students alike staged a sit-in to protest spending cuts and fee increases. Among the speakers was French Professor Ann Smock.

ANN SMOCK: The value of it as a public institution is definitely threatened dramatically now, largely because of the fee hikes.

SPENCER MICHELS: The systemic problems threaten the university's global reputation, says Smock. It's a reputation enhanced over the years by a raft of Nobel Prizes and other accolades. President Yudof insists they will endeavor to maintain quality amid the budget crunch.

MARK YUDOF: Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We're doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who's going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that's where we're running into trouble.

SPENCER MICHELS: The grim budget forecast probably means more tough times ahead for the university system and for the students being asked to pay even more.