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Degree of Worth

Higher expectations, not costs, for higher education

By Don Rothman

Many of us are very worried about the trajectory that will make the University of California an enclave of the privileged. Huge fee hikes (aka tuition) violate the principles on which public higher education in California and across the United States evolved. The promise of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, signed into law by President Lincoln, was that public universities would serve democracy and the economy. Our country aspired, however imperfectly, to create an electorate literate enough to read newspapers and ballots, and capable of designing roads and bridges, discovering agricultural efficiencies, performing life-saving medical miracles and composing lyric poems.

Since the 19th century, these public universities have provided working-, middle- and upper-class students access to each other in the presence of teacher / scholars and researchers. For many of us, a public university is still a site of hope, optimism and pragmatic necessity. So what's the problem?

At the next Regents meeting at UCLA Nov. 17–19, UC leadership is likely to impose a 32 percent fee increase, which comes on top of other recent substantial increases. If this occurs, fall 2010 tuition will be $10,302. One way to put this in perspective is to observe that in 1999 a minimum-wage worker had to labor 18 weeks to pay UC fees; by next fall, it may be 32 weeks.

No one questions that these huge increases make it harder or impossible for many to even think about attending UC. Why should we care?

Defenders of the legacy of public higher education often make the economic-engine argument. They point out that California, in particular, needs well-educated workers to sustain its information economy. High-tech, space and military engineering, and the social-service and entertainment industries depend on a college-educated workforce. The governor has used the same argument, however, to justify fee hikes, pointing out that a university degree is worth a fortune in lifetime income. I want to focus on noneconomic reasons to be concerned about the narrowing of UC's entrances.

As someone who taught writing at UC for almost four decades, I had the privilege of welcoming an amazing diversity of students fresh out of high school to the world of higher education. The vast majority grew up in California, and many were the first in their families to attend college. Some came from poor farmworker families, others from greater economic privilege.

With them came the dreams and hopes of their parents and younger siblings. Their families' sacrifices are vividly described every June when the graduates speak at commencement ceremonies. I can never forget the expressions of joy and gratitude on the faces of parents who lack formal education as they witness in students' achievements the transformational promise of the university.

I am so moved by this vivid evidence of public education's power that after retiring two years ago, I've continued as a writing mentor and attended these inspiring ceremonies, which remind me of higher education's role in shaping democracy.

What I mean is that in college these students not only acquire useful skills; they also learn to think together with their diverse styles, cultures and distinctive dialects to solve problems and confront enduring texts. They invent and reinvent their lives, discovering the value of separating from, analyzing and ultimately contributing to their home communities.

They learn the strengths of diversity in confronting enormously challenging local and global problems. They learn to make wonderful errors; to reach beyond what they thought was possible, and to revise what they thought was certain. They learn to take responsibility for our planet, for other people's children and for sustaining their personal integrity as they take intellectual and social risks.

How could we not be alarmed by the very real possibility that in raising the cost of public higher education we will be shrinking a precious resource for democracy that no other institution comes close to replicating? Young people in this society need affordable public universities, and our society needs them, not only as economic engines, but because we value vibrant and passionate inquiry in the company of colleagues.

UC president Mark Yudof has told us that in order to preserve educational quality enormous fee hikes are necessary. It seems to me that the real educational quality we ought to be preserving is possible only if California's diversity is evident on our campuses. I'm talking about measuring excellence, not only in terms of Nobel prizes and departmental rankings, but also in how we help young people to transform their lives and to improve the world.

Why not make your views known to the UC Regents and the governor?

Contact the Regents at [email protected], by phone at 510.987.9220 or fax to 510.987.9224. Contact Gov. Schwarzenegger's office at 916.445.2841 or fax to 916.558.3160. To email, fill in the form at

Professor emeritus Dr. Don Rothman taught writing and English at UC Santa Cruz for some 40 years.


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