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College radicalism redux

Students are protesting again. This time the issue is the cost of a decent education, and students have little time to spend on it.

September 27, 2009|Cathleen Decker

The campus protests of the 1960s happened long enough ago that the images filter through in black-and-white, the tint of television newsreels and newspaper photographs back in the day:

Mario Savio, ushering in the Free Speech Movement from atop a police car and exhorting fellow Berkeley students to block the arrest of their friend in the car below. The months-long student strike at San Francisco State, marked by the college president yanking out speaker wires to disrupt a rally. And as the 1970s dawned, the post-Kent State march at UCLA that disintegrated into scores of arrests and 10 injured cops.

Last week's college protests played out in color, and that was not the only difference. There were hundreds of students at various California campuses, generally not thousands, and no arrests. The students' concerns were not profound disputes like the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement but something more prosaic: The relentlessly rising cost of education.

Tom Hayden, the former California legislator who knows a little about protest, could see the contrast but still found something moving in last week's low-key uprising.

"It's very admirable that they are out there fighting," he said. "It's remarkable that they are still protesting, given the pressure that they are under."

He was speaking of the heightened competitive and economic pressures of college and what those have done to the time in life that is supposed to be open to the occasional protest, well-conceived or not.

Monthly, it seems, state officials signal new increases in fees for the California State and University of California systems; in November, the UC regents are expected to approve $2,500 more in hikes. The result: Universities that used to be in the grasp of the middle class now seem out of reach for many.

Between 1965 and 2008, fees for the UC and Cal State systems quadrupled, according to a survey by the California Postsecondary Education Commission that compared the figures in constant dollars, adjusted to take inflation into account.

At roughly the same time, according to U.S. Census data, the per capita and median incomes for Californians and their families didn't even double; again, the numbers were adjusted for inflation. Which means that out of a family pie that was not expanding much, the slice demanded by higher education grew bigger and bigger.

Victor Sanchez of Eagle Rock is in his fourth year at UC Santa Cruz, double-majoring in sociology and Latino studies. In his time there, he said, his costs have grown annually by several thousand dollars and now are in the neighborhood of $26,000. He gets by on grants and stipends and the mortgage taken out on his family home.

And as budget cuts slice from the margins to the marrow, there is a new insult: The post-graduation job that was supposed to pay off the debt now appears to be something of a mirage.

"The quality of our education has constantly been going down, and it's frustrating to see that," said Sanchez, the 21-year-old president of the UC Students Assn.

The state has been running billions of dollars in deficits, and the money to make it up has to come from somewhere. True enough, Sanchez said, but "are we seeking, hard enough, those alternate solutions?"

The alternate solutions, however, all have lobbyists. He mentioned raising the vehicle license fee. Increasing that tax helped prompt Gray Davis' 2003 recall; voiding that increase was Arnold Schwarzenegger's first act as Davis' replacement. Raising it again seems a political non-starter.

Hayden, 69, has seen the debate from all angles. The author of the Port Huron Statement that served as a constitution of sorts for the 1960s protest movement, he later served 18 years in the California Legislature, including time on education committees. He now writes and teaches, which gives him contact with students whose college experience could not be further from his own.

"I went to the University of Michigan for 100 bucks a year," he said the other day, marveling at the "public investments that ranged from universities to highways. It wasn't controversial. It wasn't considered socialism."

"That's in my DNA, but it is not -- repeat, not--in the DNA of this generation."

Nor, increasingly, is it in the DNA of California. And many students, as both Hayden and Sanchez point out, hardly have time to protest that fact, given the need to earn the money to stay in school.

"It really deters us from focusing on the issues of the world," Sanchez said. "Genocide is happening as we speak, but . . . we need to survive here first."

With the perspective of 50 years in the protest business, Hayden sees a glint of optimism. These students, after all, were part of a cohort that rose up last year and, in defiance of tradition and predictions, actually voted. The last time a generation did that -- Hayden's generation -- its members formed an activist base still dominant today.

"That generation will be the source of activism for the next 30 years," he said, "and hopefully when they get into middle age they won't forget what it was like to be a starving student."

It is a long walk between now and then, however. And first Victor Sanchez has to figure out his next move. He is looking at graduate school, but the cost of one -- $60,000 -- made him laugh and shudder all at once.

"Funny," he said, sounding more rueful than amused, "but looking at UC programs right now is dicey."


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