Education Has Value

As many readers are probably aware, there are rumblings of problems in the University of California, California State University, and California community college systems. All of these systems are kind of large, and they are intended to make education accessible to Californians by providing high quality education to residents of California at reasonably low prices. (Out of state tuition can be quite high; like other public systems in the States, the goal is on provision of education to state residents specifically.)

So, here’s the thing.

These systems are really good. In fact, they’re pretty famous. UCLA, for example, has an excellent reputation. Combined, these systems do tremendous amounts of work. They don’t just provide education to Californians, they do groundbreaking research. They help to shape California’s cultural values. They supply doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals to the state of California.

These systems have intrinsic value. It’s not just about education being an noble goal and all. They actually provide a service to California. California’s professional class includes huge numbers of people educated in the CSU, UC, and California community college systems. These institutions don’t just graduate philosophy majors; they graduate people with real skills which can be applied immediately to make the world a better place.

And these systems have been experiencing steady financial problems for rather a while. They made some bad investments, is part of the problem, but they’re also being dragged down by California’s financial woes. The state is making cuts right and left and these systems are among those being cut. Recently, fees at UC were raised by 32%, and students rioted.

And this raised all sorts of kerfuffle. People blathered on about how the increase isn’t really that expensive, and about how education is a privilege, not a right, and why don’t all those coddled students just be quiet and go contribute to society. Or suck it up and take out more loans. (As someone who is still repaying student loans that one made me snort.)

Well, I was a coddled student once, and let me tell you something: Investing in education is investing in our future.

Let me tell you something else. The system? Ain’t cheap.

An undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley is expected to pay $9,748 in fees (that’s over $22,000 for nonresidents, incidentally), with tuition being technically free for residents; all of the costs are “fees.” Berkeley’s Office of Financial Aid estimates that students pay over $1,000 for books and supplies each semester, and this number can be far higher for some students, such as art students.

At this point, the student hasn’t eaten or found a place to live. Residence halls charge almost $15,000/year (includes a meal plan), and that’s an academic year, people, not a calendar year. However, housing is scarce, and many students need to find housing in Berkeley, one of the most pressured and expensive housing markets in the nation. The school laughingly estimates $7,000/year for housing, which might be true IF you are only living in Berkeley during the school year AND you are living in a closet in a derelict house somewhere very, very far from campus.

This is just one example; costs vary depending on which school you attend and what type of program you are in. But, as a general rule, school is pricey, even community college.

This is expensive. Being a student? Is expensive.

Yes, there is funding available; you can get student loans and you may be eligible for some grants. But there are a lot of hidden costs which aren’t being discussed. Student loans become a serious burden, as I and many other college graduates are well aware. Students who seemingly should qualify for funds based on hardship don’t always necessarily do so. And unexpected expenses happen to students just like they do to everyone else. These expenses become even more complicated for disabled students who may be faced with situations like being kicked out of school/forced to repay loans immediately due to their disability status.

Think about that for a minute.

Being a student is work. Going to school is like having a job. I only had the luxury of being unemployed for one semester while I was in college, and it was the most amazing thing ever. I may have been dirt poor and eating out of dumpsters, but I had time and the ability to focus and it was spectacular. The rest of the time? I worked. A lot. So did most of the students I knew.

The students rioting about the UC fees? Those aren’t privileged people with parents paying their tuition. They’re low income Californians, and they probably are already struggling to get by, making a 32% increase a very big deal. Some of these people are the first in their families to go to college. They’re people reaching for that brass ring society has told them that they can grab if they just reach a little higher and they’re learning in the process that actually this bootstraps myth is a load of crap. Dramatic increases in tuition are a big deal. A dropping out of college big deal, in fact. This fee increase is going to have real world consequences for Californians in school, and those about to attend school. Don’t kid yourself if you think it doesn’t matter.

The point here is that I think that education is a right, not a privilege. I think that everyone who wants a higher education should get one. Not just for their benefit, although it certainly benefits them, but for the benefit of society. We win when more people go to college because it means that we get more talented professionals. I’m a utilitarian in many ways, and I believe that providing education to people creates the greatest good for the greatest number.

California as a whole benefits from having a world-class public public education system which people literally come from all over the world to attend. People also come from all over the world to teach in the UC, community college, and CSU systems. This benefits the state. Intellectual capital has value. California is a better place because of public education.

The public education system has been slipping out of the grasp of Californians at a steady rate for over a decade. Rising fees, pressures of costs of living in university towns, all of these things contribute to putting the UC/CSU/community college systems out of reach. Hell, I would have a Master’s degree right now if I had been able to afford grad school; I was, in fact, accepted, enrolled, and ready to go, and I could not get funding.

So I know, on a very personal level, about the pressures inside this system. I know about the barriers to this supposedly public, low cost, easy to access education that California is supposed to be providing.

If we let the CSU/UC and California community college systems collapse, if we do this, if we say that they do not have value and are not worth sustaining, we are making a grave mistake, and it’s a mistake that we are going to regret. That future generations are going to regret. It takes time to build a solid university system and not long at all to tear it down, and right now we are tearing it down and someone else is going to have to rebuild it.

Yes, a good public education system costs money. A lot of money, actually. And yes, California is economically strapped. But this is one place where we really, really, really cannot afford to slack. The destruction of these systems will have long-lasting ramifications which people have clearly not considered, or they wouldn’t be so gung ho to pitch UC/CSU/community colleges out the window.

California, do not do this.

4 Replies to “Education Has Value”

  1. Well, I’m a UC graduate and employee and…honestly, I think we’re doomed. California is so horrendously mismanaged that they will never dig out of the hole at this point, so I think everything, not just schools, is going to get thrown all to hell. I think Yudof has the right idea of trying to become 100% self-supporting because the state is not going to support us much longer even partially at the rate they are going. I just don’t know if that is possible either.

    Sigh.

  2. OMG, now I feel privileged living in the Netherlands. College tuition is about E1600/year (don’t know the euro/dollar conversion rate at this point), and housing is about E3000/year for the small rooms freshmen usually get into (I pay around E5000/year, but I have a one-bedroom apartment). Most students are eligible for financial aid which is about E250/month for up to four years plus free/reduced rate public transportation (most college students don’t drive here); it is a loan, but if you graduate within so many years, you’ll be exempted from paying it back. Addiitonal loans are available for those who choose to (most people who don’t work alongside their education do borrow extra money). And still, there were huge protests against a new law (no clue whether it was passed since I dropped out of college for non-financial reasons before then) that would allow colleges to raise tuition to like E8000/year for students not graduating within six years (or something). I opposed this legislation too, and it creates problems for people who, for whatever reason, cannot graduate in time but really have the potential. But compared to the system wher eyou are, and most of the US, we are *extremely* privileged.

    As a side note, I at one point wanted to major in American studies, in which case there’d be the possibility of studying at a US college for a semester. The mind-blowing thing (but good for the Dutch folks who do this), is that you get to pay Dutch tuition (so the E1600/year equivalent).

  3. Two things made me laugh (in the uncomfortable sort of way)

    the fact that tuition is free but you pay thousands of dollars in “fees”

    estimating an apartment in Berkeley for $7000/year. um, maybe a closet.

  4. I’d like to second Jennifer’s assessment. Considering that CA. pushed out $21B of our $30B “shortfall” to deal with next year AND was only able to do so by accelerating witholding rates which will leave even less revenue coming in next year, I’d say that as painful as this year has been we’ve only just begun our journey over the pain threshold.

    Though I’d have to add that as tragic as the underfunding of our educational systems is, I’m more fearful for the immediate future of those who *can’t* do for themselves. The people who CANNOT survive without public assistance through no fault of their own.

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