Letter in Berkeley Daily Planet: Access to Higher Education Benefits Everyone

“If I couldn’t go to Vista College I would just have to focus on working, getting by. I couldn’t get a better job. What would the future be?”
—Ayanna Roberts, student, Vista Community College

Ayanna Roberts was one of the 10,000 community college students, staff and faculty members who converged on Sacramento on March 15 to protest Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposed 44 percent increase in community college fees. This proposal comes on top of the 64 percent fee increase these same students saw last year. Last year’s fee increase combined with $200 million in budget cuts forced an estimated 175,000 students across the state out of college this year.

Before attending Vista, Ayanna was a hostess at IHOP making $6.75 an hour. She now works 32 hours a week in a retail job making all of $8 an hour while going to school full time. She hopes to develop the skills to go into radio and broadcast production. Vista and other community colleges in the East Bay can help. But, right now, the future for all of the Ayannas in the state is at risk.

Faced with massive deficits, the governor has proposed to balance a large part of the budget on the backs of California’s students. In addition to the fee increases mentioned above, the governor has proposed:

  • Seventy percent increases for community college students who already have a B.A. and are returning for job retraining or continuing education.
  • Ten percent increases for UC undergrads.
  • Forty percent increases for UC’s graduate and professional students.
  • Nine percent budget cuts for Cal State Universities (CSU).

He then proposes pushing some 10,000 students from the UC and CSU systems into the community colleges, further displacing students like Ayanna.

For a time in the United States, the classic vision of the American Dream, at least for some, was not just a myth. In the period following World War II, the U.S. economy grew at a fabulous rate. Increases in productivity (averaging three percent a year) translated into higher wages. Between 1950 and 1973, average workers saw their real pay increase from about $9 to just over $14 an hour.

Open access to higher education was part of the virtuous circle that led to this expansion of the American Dream. California’s Master Plan for Education adopted in 1960 promised every high school graduate in the state access to a college education. College graduates became more productive and creative citizens who in turn paid far more in taxes which allowed for the continued investment in the commons. Put quite simply, public investment in higher education was beneficial for everyone.

Since the 1970s, however, much has changed. Inflation-adjusted wages have actually declined for wage earners. Between 1973 and 2000, average real income for the bottom 90 percent of Americans workers fell by seven percent. The gap between the rich and everyone else has widened to levels not seen since the 1930s with the top one percent of taxpayers increasing their income by 148 percent, the top .1 percent gaining some 343 percent and the top .01 percent gaining an astounding 599 percent.

This is a real reversal of fortunes that has been imposed on average people. Major corporations and the wealthy have sent good jobs abroad in search of cheaper labor and bigger profits. They have orchestrated tax cuts for the rich. They have beat up the labor movement, undermining the power of working families to bargain for decent wages.

And now, they are making it even harder simply to get a college education. Last year, across the country average fees at public universities and community colleges rose by 14 percent (and UC students were hit with a whopping 30 percent fee hike.)

How important is college for a student’s economic prospects? One report notes that college graduates will earn fully $38,000 a year more than those with only a high school diploma. When Ayanna says that without Vista she would just have to focus on work without much of a future, she speaks for every high school graduate trying to get a college education.

Sure, there might be some financial aid to help the poorest of these students cope with fee hikes. But what about the average working student who is already juggling two jobs just to pay rent and keep food on the table? What about the student whose book grant program won’t have enough money to help her pay for textbooks? What about the 175,000 students who were already pushed out of school because of the current year cuts? What kind of a future are we holding out for these students?

I’ve been a community college teacher for 15 years. I love my work. I love that community colleges are a source of hope and renewal for millions of Californians. I love that they are a source of democracy, economic opportunity, and civic engagement. I love that students get a second chance, and in some cases a first chance, to get a good education which can sometimes lead to a good job. And I love that they are the foundation for a skilled workforce for California’s businesses.

But I’m worried right now and I’m angry. I’m worried for the Ayannas out there who are already having a hard enough time making it. I’m worried that closing access to higher education, means the Ayannas of the world will not become the creative and productive citizens they can be, that they will not pay higher levels of income tax that good jobs generate, that we’re setting up a lose-lose scenario for everyone. And I’m angry that we’re sticking it to students who are already on the edge without first calling for real shared sacrifice— say, by reinstating the tax on household incomes over $270,000?

Plain and simple, this is a fight about who is going to pay taxes to invest in the future. The community college “fee” increases are just taxes by another name. This money goes not to the colleges at all, but straight into the state’s general fund like any other tax. This “fee” was already increased by 64 percent last year. Haven’t they paid their share already? So, who’s it going to be, impoverished and working students or those who can really afford it?

This is not just Ayanna’s fight. It’s mine and yours too. Call the governor and tell him to quit picking on the students. Tell him that it’s time for those who benefit most richly from California’s great environment to pony up and pay their share.

Gov. Schwarzenegger can be reached by telephone: (916) 445-2841; by fax: (916) 445-4633; and by e-mail: governor@governor.ca.gov.

Nicky González Yuen, JD, Ph.D., is a Berkeley resident and a community college instructor at De Anza College in Cupertino.