By Wes Bowers
Dozens of California State University-East Bay students gathered at the old union hall on the Hayward campus last Thursday to help Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, kick off a campaign to reduce student loan debt.
Wieckowski was joined by state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, as well as students and CSU-East Bay employees to promote the Middle Class Scholarship Act, a bill aimed at reducing college costs for students with family incomes of less than $150,000.
"For the first time ever in California, our colleges are turning students away," Wieckowski said, stating fees in the University of California system have tripled since 2003-04.
According to Wieckowski, the California State University system has seen fees increase by as much as 191 percent since 2003, while UC fees have increased by 145 percent.
In addition, he said 94 percent of the class of 2012 will graduate in debt, up from 45 percent of seniors a decade ago.
Former governor Pat Brown initiated the Master Plan for Higher Education, which was supposed to give all California students the opportunity to purse higher education.
"There were many elements to the master plan, but the main goal said higher education should be available for all who seek it in California, regardless of their economic status," he said. "That meant if you got good grades in high school and wanted to go to college, you were guaranteed a spot in the higher educational system."
However, 50 years later, that all fadedm as nearly every graduating student this year will be some $23,000 in debt.
He said student loan debt nationwide has exceeded $1 trillion, and added that figure was more than credit card debt and auto loan debt combined.
Wieckowski said when he attended the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, it cost $800 a year, compared to as much as $55,512 today.
"Unfortunately, we've gotten off track," he said. "Today, California spends more money on prisons than its state education system. It costs more to house inmates than it does to send someone to Harvard University in Boston."
Wieckowski co-authored the Middle Class Scholarship Act with Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, which would slash fees in the UC and CSU systems by two-thirds for families making less than $150,000.
Wieckowski asserted the bill would save UC students about $8,200 a year, while CSU students would save about $4,000 a year. Community college students would also be provided financial relief.
"I really think it's our duty to make sure our students can be what they want to be and who they want to be," Corbett said last week. "It's the American Dream (to attend college) and we need you to support this."
She noted many years ago, the majority of jobs and careers in America did not require a degree from a college or university, unlike today, where students sometimes need a bachelor's, master's or doctorate degree to get entry level jobs in the field of their choice.
"Today it's getting harder and harder to afford education and that shouldn't be happening," she said. "California has a great education system, but we need to bring it back to the way it once was."
Corbett said student debt is not only generated from college tuition, but housing fees, meals, transportation fees and text book fees, among others within higher education. She noted one of her own bills she is pushing through the state Legislature, Senate Bill 1539, which would help lower the costs of textbooks for college students.
The bill requires higher education textbook publishers to inform institutions of the differences in the textbooks from previous editions and also of all the products they offer on the same topic. Without this information, professors and others who select textbooks often do not know about the alternatives.
This information would let professors and students know whether purchasing an expensive new edition is necessary or if a previous edition or different book would suffice.
Craig Collins, a political science professor at CSU-East Bay, supports the Middle Class Scholarship Act.
He said he has seen a number of students drop out of college because of fees and loan increases. And those who have been able to finish four years of school are saddled in debt, barely making enough to get by.
"The master plan has become a disaster," he said. "(Universities and loan corporations) don't know there isn't enough money, and we're going to have to live with another increase in fees and loans. There is no time more important than now to invest in higher education."
Courtney Symonds, CSU-East Bay's legislative director of Associated Students, highlighted Wieckowski's comment on state prisons, and said it was a sad state of affairs in terms of California's priorities.
"Sometimes colleges can keep people out of prison," she said. "That's why we need to shift our focus to our education system."
Symonds and CSU-East Bay resident adviser Pablo Benavente both said many of their friends and students they supervise have been forced to drop out of the CSU system because of rising costs each year, adding the state has spent some $49,000 on prisons, but only $3,000 on college students.
"I've seen many freshmen leave this year because they couldn't afford the dorms," Benavente said. "Some had to leave because they couldn't afford tuition. Focusing on higher education is something this state needs to take more seriously."
Wieckowski then presented the film "Default: The Student Loan Documentary," made by San Francisco filmmaker Serge Bakalian.
Over the course of four and a half years, Bakalian spoke with many UC and CSU graduates who had encumbered as much as $80,000 in student loan debt.
Graduates on film said after leaving college they were forced to place their loans in deferment while they searched for jobs.
Many of the students said it was interest rates, which continued to accrue although the loans were deferred, that caused the totals to balloon.
Bakalian said student loan debt was something no one wanted to talk about while he produced the film, yet it is a looming problem.
"I always felt it was egregious that in all the nation and the world (California) straps students with so much debt," he said. "We talk about the state of our economy and how bad it is, yet we strap students with thousands of dollars in debt, that could be used to boost the economy."