Words matter. Everyone knows it’s true, even though some would deny it.
That is why a little item on the agenda at the California State University Trustees meeting this week jumped out at those of us who believe that our state university is an investment in the future by making sure higher education is available to every Californian who can benefit from it.
That agenda item notified the Trustees and the public that the CSU Chancellor plans to issue an executive order that student “fees” charged to attend the CSU henceforth shall be known as “tuition.”
The change is all about the vision for the CSU; that is, what California’s state university should accomplish, who should benefit from it, and how the cost should be financed. The change from fees to tuition shows that there has been a profound shift in how the leaders of our state university system answer those questions.
What we need from our university leaders is a deep commitment to overcoming obstacles and making sure we get as many people through college as possible. We need these college grads in the workforce where there is a growing demand for nurses, engineers, scientists and many other professions. We need educated graduates participating as informed citizens in our democracy.
It is tragic for all of us to have university leaders who think it’s good enough to follow the path of least resistance. In the change from fees to “tuition,” CSU leaders send a defeatist message that, oh well, there’s no money, too bad, we’ll let elected leaders off the hook and manage by shifting the cost to the students and their families.
And while our university executives indeed do manage very well with excellent salaries and perks, the growing hurdles to broad access to higher education that are being thrown up mean an ever-smaller proportion of our young people will go to college, the quality of the education will be undermined, and those who do manage to attend will go deeper into debt.
Our state university is part of a plan— California’s Master Plan for Higher Education— which catapulted our state into the forefront of the nation’s economic, social, and cultural life. No other state developed anything exactly like it, and 50 years later, we still have it, and still debate how to build on it.
That plan said that public higher education would be free of tuition because everyone — from students and their families, to the businesses that comprise our economy — benefits from having an educated population.
The Master Plan stated the facts: public education is a public good, and it is a great investment for the State of California.
Under cover of the economic downturn, however, the Master Plan’s big and forward-thinking idea is up against a narrow-minded and shortsighted argument that individual students and their families should bear the cost of higher education on their own. “Tuition” means that the student is just another customer for a service that an individual must buy privately and ignores the benefit to all of us of a vibrant educated middle class.
With the latest proposed increases, CSU statewide fees will have risen 242% over eight years, far higher than inflation, even as students get significantly less. Class offerings have been slashed by the thousands and students have been forced to stay in school much longer to get the courses they need to graduate.
Placing the cost squarely on each individual family means that students must run up debt, which is good for the bottom line of banks that make loans but not so great for California that needs a strong middle class.
Shifting costs also shrinks the portal through which students get into college, turning away more of them and discouraging those with limited resources from even trying to get a degree.
It is also important to note that in contrast to fees, tuition has no express connection to the costs of directly instructing students. In other words, it will be easier for CSU executives and their managers to push pet projects and higher compensation for the bloated CSU management structure. Money taken from the students will go to the university’s teaching mission at the chancellor’s discretion; tuition becomes “the chancellor’s money.”
It is ironic that our state university executives are moving to close the book on the Master Plan at the very moment when the state chose governor-elect Jerry Brown, whose father’s greatest legacy is his vision for public higher education.
We need to turn this great university ship around, into a brighter future. To do that, our state university Trustees and executives need to develop a new vision more in sync with the Master Plan for Higher Education. We in the faculty, and the rest of us at the 23 state university campuses, will fight to save the CSU for all of California. We are ready for the university’s leaders to join us.
Lillian Taiz is a professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles and President of the California Faculty Association.
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