Public Comment

A College Education: The Problems Keep Growing

Harry Brill, ( UC Berkeley Grad, 1960-1969)
Friday March 15, 2019 - 02:30:00 PM

College students are not only hungry for knowledge. They are hungry for new experiences and for the opportunity to explore new ideas Students are also looking forward to developing new friendships, and more generally, enjoying the college experience. Instead, too many are feeling very financially pressed, unable to find a decent affordable place to live, and can barely afford regular and healthy meals. Unfortunately for many students, their college experience is disappointing and even distressing.

About their living situation, most students would prefer to live on the college campus. Although 38 percent of undergraduate students attending one of the nine University of California schools live in campus housing, which is less expensive than the private sector. U.C. Berkeley provides housing for only 22 percent of undergraduate students. And only 9 percent of Berkeley graduate students compared to about 20 percent on the other campuses enjoy campus housing. Indeed, U.C. Berkeley's record for housing students is the worse of the nine California university schools.

With regard to the cost of campus room and board in U.C. Berkeley housing, the University ranks among 1,100 colleges as the fifth most expensive in the nation. Because it charges exorbitant rents, the housing is self-supporting. So it could charge student tenants less rent. But it doesn't. By not competing with the private sector with lower rents, it is a gift to the private housing market. 

To understand U.C. Berkeley's housing policy, take a look at who serves on the UC Board of Regents, whose members govern the universities. . Many who serve on the board are committed to the interests of the private sector. For example, Dianne Feinstein' spouse, Richard Blum, who is an investment banker, has an exclusive contract with the federal government to purchase post offices and sell them to the private sector.  

Clearly, the University administrators are quite aware of what the regent members want. In deference to the interests of the private housing market several years ago a UC Berkeley administrator mentioned that the University did not intend to build student housing. In defense of this policy, he claimed that providing a quality education rather than housing was its main objective. But as many colleges realize, providing campus housing is very compatible with educational objectives. Actually, UC Berkeley has other priorities. Among the reasons that the private sector has been able to charge exorbitant rents is in part because the University has avoided competing for tenants. 

Due to the considerable pressure to provide housing for students, the Board of Regents and the UC Berkeley administration has more recently acknowledged their obligation to build campus housing on some of the campus sites. But there is a catch. According to U.C. administrators, U.C. Berkeley has adopted what is called the P-3 approach, which means it now favors participating with the private sector in "public, private, partnership" ventures. In short, the University provides the land, and the private sector constructs, then operates the housing, and collects the rents to pay back its investments. So in reality, the University is allowing these developers to privatize campus housing. You can be certain this arrangement will be lucrative for business, which will undoubtedly be charging high rents. 

To assure a student market in the private sector for housing being built both on and off the campus, the University is continuing to admit more students than is justified. Since 2010 the number of enrolled student has climbed from about 30,500 to over 42,500 currently. Moreover, the plans are to increase the student body to 44,735 in the next three years, But the number of faculty is not being proportionately increased. And the University announced that it will be reducing substantially the number of employees. As a result, the size of classes will grow, more courses will be taught by teaching assistants rather than experienced faculty, and services will be cut. In addition, the crowded city of Berkeley will become even more crowded and polluted. 

Moreover, the California state legislature rather than attempting to ameliorate student problems have appreciably contributed to their hardship. Until the late 1970s, tuition for students on any one of the campuses was free. But Ronald Reagan, who served as governor, from 1967 to 1975, was outraged at the "extremism of the students". He claimed that the student protests of the sixties reflected their "socialist ingratitude" for the education they were receiving. So he did whatever he could to punish both the University and the students. He fired the University's president, Clark Kerr, who supported free tuitions and who Reagan regarded as too soft on radical activism. He cut UC's budget and attempted to require students to pay a tuition. Although he succeeded in persuading the Board of Regents to adopt student fees (for non-instruction costs), the state legislature was not yet convinced to approve tuitions.  

But not long afterwards, the Board of Regents was given the power to charge tuitions. Tuition was one tool that could limit student activism. A growing number of legislators agreed with Reagan that to build a world class university, the students must pay for it. In addition, the budget allocated to the University system was slashed in 1974 from 32 percent of the total UC budget to about 12 percent currently. To compensate for the reduction, the Regents has since felt compelled to raise the tuition substantially. 

Not surprisingly, the implications for students who are under enormous financial pressure have been worrisome. A survey found that among college students, over 40 percent suffered from anxiety and more than 36 percent were experiencing depression. Almost one out of four college student were taking prescription drugs to relieve these symptoms.  

However, student problems are more than psychological. Food insecurity, which is the Department of Agriculture's term for a lack of adequate and healthy food. According to a survey of UC Berkeley 38 percent of undergraduates and 23 percent of graduate students cope with food insecurity at some point during the year. In addition to the adverse health implication of suffering from food insecurity, a lack of an adequate diet impacts school performance. Hunger makes it very hard to focus on school work. 

To get by many students have been forced to borrow money. After graduating, paying back their loans reduces for many their standard of living. Even though Berkeley students compared to students in other colleges are better off financially, 35 percent are forced to make loans. Also, a full time, good paying job after graduating has become more difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, the immense decline in middle class jobs is certainly not a fiction. 

To turn the economy around to serve the objectives of graduates requires building a mass based democratic political movement and electing progressive political leaders. Yes, that sounds like one of those clichés. Whether it is a cliché or not, there is no other alternative