The war on higher education

by Matthew Smith

War is upon us and the enemy is waging a ferocious assault. If you think I’m talking about Syria, guess again. Far away from the turmoil in the Middle East, a war is being fought at home. I’m referring to the war against college education.

This war is deeply rooted in politics and greed, with both major parties caving to special interests. The fiscal war against college education has led to years of budget cuts, fights with financial aid programs such as grants, and increased interest rates on student loans.

Congress recently passed a student loan deal keeping interest rates for subsidized student loans temporarily low. However, interest rates will increase as the economy improves, which will give future students a higher debt burden. It was an 11th hour agreement that came after partisan bickering from extreme budget hawk Republicans in Washington, D.C., nearly caused everyone’s student loan rates to double.

The new loan deal only adds to the pain California students have suffered because of a similar political climate in Sacramento for nearly a decade. Since 2007, national averages for college funding have plummeted by 30 percent. Tuition skyrocketed at California public universities as a result. Tuition for undergraduates at San Diego State surged from $1,714 per semester to $3,383, a 50 percent increase.

During this time, former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown folded to pressure from a partisan state legislature and shattered the higher education budget in order to deal with the state’s then escalating budget crises. Yet Schwarzenegger, Brown, and the legislature revealed their skewed priorities and seemingly cared more for the interests of prisons. Funding for California correctional facilities virtually remained intact while education funding was falling off the charts.  Despite a significant decrease in California’s inmate population, the budget for rehabilitation and correctional facilities were almost identical at approximately $9.8 billion in 2007 and 2011.

Politicians are not the only people responsible for this attack. While funding was declining and tuition was multiplying, the California State University system raised salaries for several new university Presidents. Current SDSU President Elliot Hirshman, who was appointed in 2011, received a $400,000 salary, $100,000 more than his predecessor Stephen L. Weber, despite being new to the CSU system at the time. Since then, other new presidents at CSU schools have been granted similar pay raises. Additionally, school presidents—who have an average salary of $300,000 per year—also receive unnecessary yearly allowances totaling $12,000 for cars and $60,000 for housing. Such excessive pay raises and allowances have transformed the public university system into a strictly for-profit business, undermining the purpose of providing high quality education at a reasonably affordable cost.

CSU administration promised to relieve tuition hikes with the passage of Proposition 30 last year.  However, despite the additional funding provided by Prop 30, administrators attempted to slap an insultingly inflated tab on so-called “super” seniors. The proposals would have increased tuition on students who repeated classes, had more than 160 attempted units, or took more than 18 units in a semester. The plan fortunately fell flat after student backlash and pressure from Gov. Brown. However, the CSU system still managed to blow off lower income super seniors by placing new restrictions on the State University Grant program, which pays full or partial tuition for qualified students. The new restrictions limit the program to undergraduates with less than 150 units and only 30 units for teaching credential students, even though the Single Subject Teaching Credential program at SDSU requires more than 33 units.

Such political posturing and backdoor business deals are destroying education.

(To be continued in Part Two)