In summary

The California State University system is considering annual tuition hikes to help cover a billion-dollar budget gap. Increasing attendance costs could make it harder for Black students who are already facing stubborn achievement and economic disparities.

Guest Commentary written by

Isaac Alferos

Isaac Alferos

Isaac Alferos is a higher education equity researcher and community organizer. He served as the Cal State Student Association president emeritus from 2021-22.

With rising costs of housing, costs for food, budget shortfalls and COVID aid in the rearview mirror, the time has come for educational institutions to start looking for new ways to finance their operations. And no matter how predictable, it’s surprising to see that this time it’s the California State University system ready to ask students to pay up.

Cal State has increased tuition only once in the last 11 years, which has cemented the system’s reputation as one of the state’s most desired options for baccalaureate programs. While the university budget faces a $1.5 billion gap, an annual tuition increase risks pushing out more low-income students and widening equity gaps for Black students. 

Increases in tuition today will further threaten a growing population of students coming to Cal State. And though CSU remains the most affordable option for students looking for a four-year degree, it’s still too expensive. A 2022 report by Community Engagement for College Success Network noted that 40% of CSU students worry about affordability – by far their largest concern.

Even though a large population of students receive grants and institutional aid to help lower costs, it’s still not enough, and this inflating cost of attendance is no doubt impacted by California’s overall affordability crisis. But it’s important to note that the basic needs crisis this creates throughout Cal State leaves many students unable to fully invest in their own education. A system-wide report found that 41% of students face food insecurity and 10% of students experience homelessness in any given year.

Turning around to ask students to pay more for their education when it is already leaving students struggling to feed and house themselves is simply a cruel jest. 

If that weren’t enough, being able to afford a degree exacerbates existing equity gaps that plague CSU. Reportedly, 76% of Black graduates within the system leave with debt compared to 46% for their white peers. When we add this to the reports of Cal State obscuring Black student data to hide the reality that Black graduation rates have maintained a 20% gap below white students over a 15-year span, why did this year’s Black Student Success report fail to reference affordability or transparent data in its recommendations?

The reality is the system is already struggling to substantively support Black students, with Black student enrollment struggling to push past 4% system-wide. As graduation and retention rates maintain their respective gaps, it’s clear that a tuition increase will only place more obstacles in front of Black students. 

I have a deep love for Cal State. It’s not because of its structure or history or governance, but because of what CSU really is: extraordinary faculty, staff and students collectively committing to the just cause of building educational opportunities for communities where education historically failed.

With this in mind, it’s hard to see the direction CSU is going as being aligned with the steps needed to rectify the existing crises, helping create affordable, equitable, quality education.

Like many CSU students, I found myself outside the dated perspective of what a “traditional” student is. And though I am fortunate to come from a family of proud Black Cal State grads, I’m scared I could be the last in my family to call CSU home. 

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