Throughout college, Atticus Reyes traveled an hour each way from his upper valley home in Ojai to Cal State Channel Islands a few miles off Ventura County’s expansive coastline. Reyes arranged his first two years of classes so he would only be on campus two days a week—a strategy that allowed him to avoid hundreds of dollars for semester parking permits.

Now a recent graduate, Reyes continues to advocate for cheaper parking for students—and for a change in a longstanding California State University fee structure that charges them disproportionately more to park than staff and faculty at Cal State.  “(Parking) is the fee that will never be waived for any student,” he says. “Why do we seem to push all of the revenue stresses on [them]?”

Today’s California college students graduate with an average of $20,000 in debt, more than previous generations, and studies show many struggle to afford food, housing and other basic needs. Transportation costs may not be the largest factor in that equation, but they can add up.

And at Cal State’s two dozen campuses, where many commute for an education, they have long come with an extra sting: As a result of favorable rates negotiated over time by employee unions, university labor contracts stipulate explicitly that faculty members pay less to park than students. 

As a practical matter, student advocates say, that has meant that starving students subsidize parking for paid faculty, staff and administrators. Of the $124 million raised through CSU parking fees in fiscal 2017-18, 61% came from students, compared to 34% from other parking fees, like daily visitors. Just 6% came from employees.

That translates to real dollars for many students on tight incomes. According to the Cal State Student Association, the average semester parking permit for students across CSU is $171.81. The average semester permit for faculty is $68.33, $70 for staff and $166.92 for administrators.

CSU students found a sympathetic ear in San Diego Democratic Assemblymember Shirley Weber, who proposed AB 532, which would have required each campus to lower the cost of student permits.

Although the bill failed this year, proponents plan to take up the fight again.

“We will probably try to figure out a path forward in the future for this bill…because it did open up the eyes of a lot of people,” Weber said. “This is quite excessive for students to have to pay for parking when compared to the faculty and administrators who make a lot more (and) pay a lot less.”

Current law states that parking at each campus must be self-supported. CSU spokesperson Toni Molle says any revenue generated from parking fees is used to pay for related expenses, such as construction costs, maintenance and operations. The university system took no formal position on Weber’s bill.

But there’s also the added layer of labor contracts.

Through the collective bargaining process, CSU employees have been able to set faculty parking rates and freeze them for the duration of the contract, which is usually three years at a time. That leaves students feeling like they are bearing the brunt of parking cost increases.

employee parking contract

CSU Employee Union’s contract states parking must be less than students’ fees.

“Students don’t have those same benefits or anything to relieve the cost that we’re paying. And it’s because we don’t have anybody who gets to negotiate these agreements or make these contracts for us,” Cal State Fullerton student Meghan Waymire said in an interview. “Only faculty and staff have those unions. Students don’t have those same representatives.”

Weber said AB 532 stalled because it was linked to labor contracts—a condition that CSU students say is unnecessary to gaining parking parity. The students only wanted to adjust the rates so that they would be equal to or no longer subsidize the rates of employees, without having any revenue come from CSU or the state.

“We don’t want faculty and staff to also be burdened by this and also have to pay more,” Waymire said. “It’s really just about equity and the fact that students are paying nearly triple than what they’re paying, while also not receiving the same amount of benefits that they’re receiving.”

Labor groups say the public needs a better understanding of the current parking revenue structure before making changes.

David Balla-Hawkins, legislative director for CSU Employees Union, which represents 16,000 CSU support staff ranging from custodians to nurses, said the union supported the bill once it was amended to not interfere with the collective bargaining process. However, Balla-Hawkins said students may learn more about what their parking fees are used for through an audit requested by the Legislature.

The audit, which is expected to be released sometime this month, was sponsored by the union. It will look at the chancellor’s role in overseeing operations at CSU campuses as well as review and evaluate the current structure of the university’s parking program.

“I think what students need to be attentive to is what’s going on with the money they’re paying for parking permits,” Balla-Hawkins said. “What’s it being used for? And that’s what the state audit is going to answer.”

For now, students will keep watching parking fees climb.

Waymire, who also serves as a student government officer at Cal State Fullerton, said students at her campus will see a $100 increase in their parking rates within the next year.

Currently, students are paying $236 for a parking permit per semester. On July 1, that rate will increase to $285 a semester and by July 2020, the parking rate will be $334 a semester for students.

“That’s just the student fees that are going to be increasing,” Waymire said. “The reason they’re increasing our fees is to build a new structure. And so even with that, we’re not going to have enough parking spaces for students.”