By Katy Murphy
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
After scrimping, borrowing and sacrificing for years to pay for college, graduating seniors are finally preparing to celebrate. But at many California public universities, you don't just pay to get in. You pay to get out.
At Cal State East Bay, there's a $49 fee to graduate. At San Francisco State, it's $100 -- $60 more than it was two years ago. Across the state, 15 of Cal State's 23 campuses charge a graduation fee -- a long-standing and once-little-noticed tack-on that is raising students' anger. This year's graduates have absorbed tuition fee hikes nearly every year since they stepped foot on campus, and now they are discovering even the diploma isn't always included in the tab.
"There is a fee for everything," said Natalia Aldana, a Cal State East Bay communications major and journalist who graduates in June. "I think it's really unfortunate that they have to charge students for everything they do, including graduation."
Even before they are declared degree-worthy, most Cal State students must pass a writing exam -- with an additional fee of up to $38. UC Berkeley graduates don't pay a separate fee to graduate, but commencement tickets cost $10 a head -- even for graduates themselves. At San Jose State, some students recently learned they'd have to pay $75 to be honored in their department's own celebration.
"We already have to pay to be here, and we've got to pay to leave," said Donnisha Udookon, a Cal State East Bay criminal justice and sociology major from Los Angeles.
Todd Brown, a Cal State East Bay business management major from Antioch, paid his school's graduation fee -- then discovered he was one class shy of meeting his requirements and had to pay it again.
Turns out, the fees are so obscure that even Judy Heiman, an analyst in the Legislative Analyst's Office who specializes in higher education, hadn't heard of them.
"I do wonder why they chose to do it that way," she said.
Cal State spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp pointed to the state's Master Plan for Higher Education, a half-century-old law that has resulted in a complicated system of fees. The so-called "tuition fee" can only be used for instruction costs, he said, so campuses must find the money elsewhere.
And find it they do. Schools, departments and student clubs often hold more intimate celebrations, fundraising and selling tickets to cover the cost.
Walking the stage at San Jose State's Department of Health Science and Recreation graduation costs $75. The charge includes six tickets, but it caused a minor revolt. Some of this year's graduates are skipping the festivities, which their classmates are helping to organize.
"You've worked so hard," said Rebecca Krueger, who was so incensed she started a blog about it. "It's this time of honor and celebration, and you're hit with this fee just to participate. You feel nickel-and-dimed."
Some leaders at San Jose State say the university could help departments control their ceremony costs by coordinating some of the planning. Dorothy Poole, the head of the commencement committee, said she watched in amazement last year as rental companies set up the chairs for one department's event, took them down and then did it all over again for a different department 24 hours later.
Costs should be low enough that even the most cash-strapped, debt-laden students can celebrate with their classmates, Krueger said.
Students who have long complained about extra charges say that by the time they reach graduation, they almost come to expect an add-on fee at every turn. Now that a degree is within reach, many just shrug at that last charge -- or what they think is their last one.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Brown said, before putting on his gown and posing for graduation photos -- that don't come free, either. "In the long run, it's OK."