When the trustees of California State University (Cal State, or CSU), one of the largest public university systems in the country, decided to raise tuition, Crystal Chavira-Ordunez was concerned not only for their future but also for the future of their brothers.
Chavira-Ordunez, a first-generation Mexican American, will be the first in her family to graduate from Cal State East Bay after transferring from a community college in the fall of 2022. loan to pay off their house in the most expensive place in the country.
A 6% increase appears small. It costs $342 for each student in the first year. But when Chavira-Ordunez discussed the tuition hike with their sister, who is considering attending Cal State Fullerton to pursue a K–12 teaching program, she became angry.
“He asked: ‘Is it worth it?'” Chavira-Ordunez said.
For many within the CSU system, which enrolls nearly 460,000 students, such an increase can amount to deciding whether to pay for textbooks or take on another job beyond their coursework. At a time when the cost of attending college has been rising for decades, CSU costs have remained relatively flat for 11 of the past 12 years.
But faced with a $1.5 billion budget deficit and a year of declining enrollment, trustees in September voted to raise tuition costs, prompting a backlash from students and faculty. While attending the CSU system is seen as a path to upward mobility by many, students the Guardian spoke to said the tuition increase, which is expected to rise to more than $2,000 over six years, could cause people to question whether the cost of pursuing higher education within the historically affordable school system will be worthwhile.
The CSU website notes that 60% of the system’s students will avoid the impact of higher tuition because it will be covered by grants and waivers, and over five years it will generate $860 million in revenue, with a third going to finance student assistance programs. “The CSU is committed to keeping costs as low as possible and providing support for students with the greatest financial need,” said the system’s vice chancellor and chief financial officer, Steve Relyea.
The tuition increase will bring the cost of an undergraduate attending a CSU school next year to $5,762. In five years, that will increase to $7,682. The Public Policy Institute of California also found that while tuition within the CSU system has increased only once since the Great Recession, student fees for health services and materials have also increased over time, leading the combined tuition costs at CSU schools to rise between $8,000 and $9,000 by 2028. In comparison, the average cost of an undergraduate attending a four-year public institution in the US has increased from $9,100 in 2011 to $9,700 in 2022.
Tuition increases, just one aspect of the cost of attendance, may disproportionately affect not only students from low-income families but also black and Latino students. They are more likely to graduate with debt than their white and Asian peers. Additionally, nearly 80% of bachelor’s degree graduates have a household income of less than $54,000. Almost eight out of 10 students already receive financial aid.
Approximately three-quarters of black students across CSU’s 23 campuses—accounting for 4% of students—graduate with debt. For Latino students, who account for nearly 40% of students systemwide, that number is 57%, compared to less than half of white students. Together, higher sticker prices can cause fear among current and aspiring college students who view the higher cost of education as a deterrent, especially if they have to pay more debt to go to college.
Dominic Quan Treseler, a senior at San Jose State University and president of the California State Students Association, the group that represents CSU students, said the tuition increase hasn’t hit the majority of students, arguing with a lack of outreach and engagement in it.
“There’s a lot of pain, a sense of hopelessness, and not knowing what this will mean for themselves,” said Quan Treseler. He added: “We’re already seeing declining enrollment system-wide, so if one system is in crisis right now, it’s unrealistic to think it’s going to help other campuses.”
Kailyn Wilkerson, who will graduate from Cal State Long Beach in December, wonders how college life will change as the cost of attendance becomes more expensive. He noted that he, like Chavira-Ordunez, is interested in pursuing his master’s degree, adding that he will look into getting grants and scholarships to make it work.
Still, Wilkerson sees her friends already struggling to pay tuition as they try to make ends meet, and she wonders if enrollment rates for black and Latino students could fall. For him, the tuition hike means the difference between a car payment and rent.
“Are they on campus together?” Wilkerson asked. “Or do they have to go to work to pay for school, and that’s about it? What else could college life be like? For most of us, there are many obstacles in our daily lives without school. School is one more thing we have to think about. “
Isaac Alferos, a higher education equity research and data analyst for Education Trust-West and a graduate of Cal State Fullerton, worries about how tuition increases beyond California. He sees the increase in tuition costs as “emblematic of the systemic change that the state needs to make in terms of being serious about addressing education equity”.
Alferos comes from a family with deep roots in the CSU system, where nine of his relatives graduated from various CSU schools. What attracted him to Fullerton was its affordability. He wanted a degree he could afford, and he considers himself lucky to graduate in May 2022 with no debt.
But he admits it is not possible for his peers. A former president of the California State Students Association, Alferos thinks about students who not only go to school but also take care of their children and work at the same time. He noted that one in 10 students said they were homeless, and two in five students said they were food insecure. “We as a state allow an environment for students that is not supported,” he said.
So when he pondered the tuition increase, he saw that it was beyond the cost of one aspect of a student’s education. Housing, food, gas, and books all weigh in on the costs of navigating life as a continuing education student in an ultra-expensive California. “A lot of it is just the cost to live and technically call yourself a student,” Alferos said, adding: “The sobering reality is that many students and families like mine who have history have to think we might be the last in our family to get their degrees at CSU.”
For the summer, Chavira-Ordunez returned to the Los Angeles area to live with their five siblings and two parents in a two-bedroom apartment to save on the cost of living in the Bay Area. Chavira-Ordunez, who intends to double major in criminal justice and sociology, had to limit what classes they could take that summer because they had to choose remote courses that fit into their schedule.
They are still considering whether to pursue their master’s degree and become professors. However, they said the tuition hike meant they had to skip buying some textbooks for the class. “I can’t afford the material my professors are asking for to develop this class,” Chavira-Ordunez said. “So I’ll pay for an F in the end.”
When applications opened this month, Chavira-Ordunez noticed their sister asking their parents if they could afford to pay the difference. Their supportive mother “doesn’t have the same energy” as when Chavira-Ordunez first went to school.
“I was like, damn, I wish my sister could have had that sky’s-the-limit opportunity that I did,” Chavira-Ordunez said.