By Nanette Asimov
It used to be that if you wanted to get something for nothing — something really, really good — all you had to do was enroll in the University of California. Now, if any UC student doubts that the days of something for nothing are long gone, a plan for the UC regents to renew a certain $60 fee Thursday should end all doubt.
The seemingly minimal yearly fee, first charged in 2007, will add up to $91 million for UC by the time it expires in 2018, if the regents renew it as expected this week in San Francisco. It’s money that students are paying to reimburse UC for tuition refunds to past students that they were entitled to after courts found that the university had improperly raised fees in 2003 and 2004.
Put another way, students are paying for what they weren’t supposed to pay for because of the improper way they were told to pay for it. Think of the impossible loops in surrealist M.C. Escher’s works, and all will be revealed.
“It is ironic,” said Lesley Haddock, a UC Berkeley student who enrolled in 2010 and has paid the $60 fee every year. “For the university to make students liable for their own administrative mistake is really problematic.”
The story begins in spring 2003, when UC raised tuition and fees for more than 30,000 students, and raised professional degree fees for more than 9,000 medical, law and other students in professional programs, in response to budget cuts from the state.
UC had already billed students enrolled in the spring and summer sessions — but then told them to pay again when it raised the price. UC had also made written promises that the price of professional degrees wouldn’t rise for students during their enrollment.
So eight students sued the university in July 2003, including a UC Berkeley law student noted for following Arnold Schwarzenegger around in a chicken suit when the then-gubernatorial candidate balked at debating. The student was Mo Kashmiri, lead plaintiff in Kashmiri vs. UC Regents.
Graduate students who had enrolled in 2003 filed another lawsuit, Luquetta vs. UC Regents, which accused UC of breaching its contract promising that fees would remain stable. The lead plaintiff was Andrea Luquetta, a UCLA law student.
Although UC argued that its increases were justified, in 2006 a judge ruled for the students in Kashmiri, awarding monetary damages and a guarantee against fee increases for professional degree students enrolled at that time.
Four years later, in 2010, another judge ruled for the students in Luquetta and awarded damages.
Altogether, some 40,000 students got hundreds or thousands of dollars each in refunds. But students in later years would pay for it all.
Fee to make up fee gap
The regents imposed the first $60 fee on all students in fall 2007. This was to recover money lost when UC was prevented from raising professional degree fees from 2004 to 2006 — including a third for financial aid. The regents have diverted a third of the $60 fee to financial aid as well.
The regents extended the fee in 2008 to recover $42 million, including interest, from the Kashmiri suit. It’s expected to be fully paid by the end of the year.
Now the regents are expected to extend the fee another five years so that students can pay the money associated with Luquetta: $49 million, including interest.
UC officials say the legal judgments represented unexpected costs on top of what they lost when the state cut their budget that year — which is why they imposed a last-minute tuition hike in the first place.
“The money had to come from somewhere,” said Dianne Klein, a UC spokeswoman, explaining why UC is charging students for refunds to previous students. “We felt spreading this out over the years was the best option. We don’t have insurance for things such as this.”
Taking a different view is Andrea Luquetta — now a lawyer helping low-income communities gain access to financial services — who called it “cynical and unfortunate” to make students pay for the improperly charged tuition.
‘Beyond the reach’
“We knew this would happen,” she said. “It breaks my heart that the tuition there is so far beyond the reach of so many people. Public law schools are supposed to be an affordable option. If you’re not going to go to a big corporate law firm, you should be able to go to the public law school and work for the people.”
Luquetta said she no longer advises students to go to law school if they want to pursue public-interest work because tuition has skyrocketed as state subsidies have plunged.
California residents can expect to spend $72,912 a year while at the UC Berkeley School of Law, the school says, including living expenses and a professional degree fee of $35,164. In 2003, that professional degree fee was $4,737.
For undergraduates, a year at UC costs $31,700 on average, including $13,200 in tuition and fees. In 2003, tuition and fees cost $5,200. Students from families earning less than $80,000 a year pay no tuition. Their fees are subsidized by wealthier students, who pay an extra third to cover the lower-income students.
— Reach Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org