Organize, fight back against tuition hikes


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Students probably saw this coming. Keeping with the trend of rising higher education costs and lower state appropriations, the state Board of Regents proposed a tuition increase Feb. 3 that would raise costs by almost 5 percent for in-state students and 6 percent for nonresidents — less than a week after Gov. Terry Branstad announced a 6 percent cut to state funding for universities.

Branstad’s severely mismatched priorities aside, the continued increase in tuition should serve as a rallying cry for students concerned about the future accessibility of higher education. The government, private colleges, and school administrations are not going to solve the tuition problem. No matter how little voice we may feel we have, it is up to us to force immediate action; we cannot resign ourselves to meekly paying whatever schools demand.

Tuition has increased between 4 and 20 percent annually for the last 10 years (higher than both the rate of inflation and, for the most part, GDP) and shows no sign of hitting a plateau. While the proposed increases would not be the most drastic, they continue to chip away at the affordability of public education — an institution that serves a vital role in American democracy, as well as preparing young people for the global market.

The recession only amplifies this trend. For the last two years, Iowa public universities have drawn more funding from tuition dollars than from state appropriations. It’s hard to view this as separate from the austerity fervor gripping the country and the resulting decrease in university allocations. Branstad, whose first stint in the gubernatorial office (in rosier economic times) was marked by large expenditures on education, slashed the requested regents’ budget by $75 million.

Kelsey Moon did her own math. “If it had raised this much before I came here, I probably would have chosen a different school,” the University of Iowa senior told the Editorial Board on Monday.

Moon, a native Iowan studying health promotion, knows the proposed increases wouldn’t affect her but expressed distaste for them anyway. “I don’t really know what I could do about it, but I would like to get involved.”

UI junior Dylan Hines was not initially aware of the magnitude of the hikes, particularly the projected 41 percent total increase in fees and tuition for nursing students. While he doesn’t envision having financial difficulties as a direct result of the proposal, he said on Monday he felt both disappointed and helpless. “If organizations were put in place or actions were implemented, then I’d look into [taking action]. But from a personal standpoint, I see it as ‘What can I do?’ It’s being decided for me.”

It is — at least how things stand right now. But silence means complicity. If we’re unwilling to raise our voices at all, we have yielded to feelings of powerlessness and insured the continued disenfranchisement of the student body.

In a guest opinion published in the DI last week, UISG President John Rigby and other student-government officials encouraged students to take action against budget cuts, which would create the need for tuition increases. “The biggest threat to public education is the gradual — and now, since the financial crisis, dramatic — decrease in appropriations,” Rigby told the Editorial Board on Feb. 5. “It’s a very concerning trend. It’s not just a symptom; it’s a serious problem.”

Rigby is optimistic that students will mobilize around the tuition increases, saying he’s seen a good engagement with lobbying and talking with legislators, although he hopes for more widespread and direct action. “There’s a willingness to get involved this year that I haven’t seen in my four years,” he told the Editorial Board.

Iowa students are not alone. Students rioted in the UK streets this winter over fee increases. The University of California system’s tuition hikes led to mass protests, building occupations, and walk-outs. Swollen deficits across the country have induced states to shift the tuition burden from the government to the student; Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, too, are in similar straits. Student organizers have declared March a month of action to defend public education, and UI students would be welcome in those coalitions.

It’s too early (and at this point too melodramatic) to call for riots and sit-ins, but not too early to organize, lobby, and protest. If government is constructed, ostensibly, to work for us, we must be willing to give it that extra push. Stand up. If there is no organization that sates your thirst for activism, create one from your like-minded friends. Demand that the Legislature excise funding from institutions other than the ones that nurture our peers, ourselves, and our democracy.

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