Opinion piece in The Daily Californian (UC Berkeley Student Newspaper) September 7, 2007

Students: To Fight Fees, Follow the Money Trail

By Charles Schwartz


Everyone complains about the problem of ever rising student fees but nobody seems to know what to do about it. As a first step, it is necessary to understand where the University now spends the money it takes in—from the state, from students and from various external sources. As a retired professor, I have spent much time looking into UC financial records and learning that there are major gaps between what officials say and what is really going on. These studies lead me to suggest the following two-part agenda for student activists at the University of California, which is based upon sound economic facts and modest political principles.

Principle No. 1: Undergraduate Fees at the University of Caifornia should never exceed 100 percent of what the University actually spends (per-student) for undergraduate education.

The official UC budget says that the “Average Cost of Education” is $17,030 per student per year and that student fees now cover only 30 percent of that cost. However, that cost figure includes a lot more than undergraduate education. It actually represents the composite cost of undergraduate education plus graduate education plus faculty research. To make sense out of this, one must disaggregate that bundle of costs. A detailed analysis based upon lots of available data leads to the conclusion that undergraduate fees are now at around 100 percent—not 30 percent—of the amount that the University actually spends for undergraduate education.

This result is shocking to most people and UC officials have chosen to ignore this claim, although they have not been able to find any meaningful error in my calculations. (For details, see  http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~schwrtz/Part_11.html)

Students need not accept my numbers outright but they can start by demanding that the university tell the truth about where their money goes; that is, they deserve a detailed accounting of what their student fees are spent on. This call for honest accounting goes far beyond this public school system; it affects all research universities, both public and private, across the nation. What is at stake in this debate is really the whole complexion of higher education at the leading research universities in America: who gets in and who gets priced out.

Principle No. 2: Student representation on the UC Board of Regents should increase to accurately reflect the amount of revenue the University receives from student fees.

When state funds provided for almost all of the revenues for the core operating budget of the University of California, it was reasonable that almost all of the members of the governing Board of Regents were elected state officials or individuals appointed by elected state officials. Now, however, student fee revenues amount to over half of what is provided by state general funds in the UC annual budget ($1.8 billion compared to $3.3 billion). This implies that a larger number of seats (I calculate eight) on that 26-member Board should now be given over to student representatives.

This situation, regarding student fees and representation, is about the same at the California State University system as it is at the University of California; so the campaign to implement this principle can have a much larger base of popular support throughout California and may spark similar movements elsewhere.

It is up to students, their parents, and other concerned citizens to figure out what organizations exist, or need to be created, in order to promote these ideas.

Charles Schwartz is a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics.