This year, for the first time ever, tuition will overtake the state’s share of funding for students attending the prestigious 10-campus University of California system. It’s not the first state to reach such a milestone, but it is a significant and symbolic one in a state mired in a seemingly interminable budget crisis and where annual funding cuts have been accompanied by yearly tuition increases.
Nationally, that combination of cuts and hikes has made back-to-school season a difficult time for college students of color in particular. A 2010 report released by the College Board showed that black students are more likely than students of all other races to graduate college with more than $30,500 in debt, even when researchers controlled for family income.
“We’ve gone from a model that understood that education is a public good to a model that suggests they are private goods that people are only entitled to if their family is well-off or wealthy, and that is inconsistent with the democracy that is used to define our country,” said Walter Allen, a professor of education and sociology at UCLA.
This summer, just as the California state legislature voted to cut UC system funding by $650 million, UC regents voted 14-4 to increase tuition by 9.6 percent. It costs $12,192 to attend the University of California today. Over the last four years, state funding for the prestigious public university network has fallen by more than 27 percent, and the system has made up for those budget shortfalls by increasing tuition. Tuition has more than doubled since just 2003.
“The whole question of whether you can afford school is a major hurdle for students of color because those students are disproportionately poor,” Allen said, adding that students of color also are disproportionately unfamiliar with the range of options available for paying for school.
“As tuition levels rise, increasingly the burden falls on low income and lower middle income kids,” Allen said.
So as college prices steadily increase around the country, so too do the numbers of those turning to loans to pay for school.
In 1992, just one in five college students were depending on student loans to pay for school; by the 2000s, 35 percent of college students were using loans to pay for school, according to the Institute for Higher Education Polcy. Today more than two thirds of students leave college with some kind of student debt, and the national average is around $23,000 per student. According to the 2010 College Board report, 27 percent of black students have more than $30,500 in debt, compared with 16 percent of white college graduates, 14 percent of Latino college graduates and 9 percent of Asian-American students.
Patricia Steele, a policy analyst with the College Board who authored the 2010 report, said that high debt loads for black students include those who go to for-profit institutions as well as four-year private and non-profit schools. Stele added that high debt levels don’t necessarily correlate with an inability to repay them, and that students with modest debt loads often struggle to repay their loans, too.
According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, black students in higher education are more likely than students of all other races to borrow money to attend college. But nearly 40 percent of black students who didn’t borrow at all paid their way through school by working full-time, and the same is true for 36 percent of non-borrowing Latino college students.
But more and more, students are turning to loans to pay for school. Steele expects that future data for the current years will show more increases in borrowing, driven by federal policy changes that upped the borrowing limits for some loans.
“What’s going to happen is,” Steele said, “college prices are going up and state systems are struggling because of slow growth in the per student state subsidies, and direct appropriations are just not growing or they’re decreasing, so you’re going to see this big huge sector where numbers are going to go up.”
Allen, though, says that the budget crisis is a matter of misplaced priorities. “We always hear the money is not available,” he said. “Of course the money is not available if you’re spending it on prisons.”
In the short term, even other student advocates seem resigned to the yearly tuition increases.
“Until the economy improves, I think it’s reasonable to fear more budget cuts are on the horizon for us,” said Emily Rusch, the state director for CALPIRG, a statewide student advocacy and organizing network. “But California as a whole benefits immensely from having a strong higher education system that’s accessible to as many students as possible,” Rusch said.
“The future of our state depends on it.”