The Students Talk Back forum, hosted by the Jesse M. Unruh Institute and the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, tackled public policy and college affordability on Wednesday.
Lisa Chavez, chief financial officer of California State University Los Angeles, and Michele Siqueiros, executive director of The Campaign for College Opportunity, Los Angeles, joined Megan Baaske and Taylor Wolfson, two students in the Price School, as panelists. Dan Schnur, director of the USC Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, and Daniel Rothberg, special projects editor at the Daily Trojan, co-moderated the event. Schnur made a point to emphasize that the speakers offered multiple perspectives in his introduction.
“[Lisa] and Michele are experts in not only higher education, but higher education affordability,” Schnur said.
The two guest panelists compared the differences with public institutions and private ones. According to Chavez, the average tuition for the Cal State system has jumped dramatically in the past few years. Chavez noted a “squeezing” of the middle class that has made four-year institutions unaffordable and community colleges overcrowded due to a growing number of applications.
To illustrate this concept, Chavez compared the California community college system to a store. When a store lowers prices, more customers go there, he said, and when the store raises its prices, something needs to be done to keep customers coming.
“You either have to build a bigger store or you have to start adding restrictions,” Chavez said.
Siqueiros did not believe the main issue with college is “squeezing,” but rather “under-matching” in which low-income students with high grades do not apply to top tier universities such as USC or Stanford due to lack of financial literacy.
“Low-income students in general have huge sticker price shocks,” Siqueiros said. “While we think that there’s a lot of aid for low-income students, low-income students don’t know that that aid is available.”
Because of this, many low-income students go to the community college system and are affected by a low transfer rate and high student-faculty ratios, Siqueiros said.
Despite differing opinions on the problem, both of the speakers emphasized that policy reforms were a necessity for the public good of the state. State governments have a vested interest in education, from a purely economic standpoint, they said.
“The more money we all make, the more money we all pay,” Chavez said.
So far, current attempts at reform have been unsuccessful. Though a new California initiative, the Middle Class Scholarship, seeks to ameliorate the “squeezing” effect in the middle class, the real issue is that there is no incentive for institutions to lower their tuition, which forces financial aid through scholarships rather than direct reduction of costs.
Chavez has petitioned multiple times for increased state funding for the CSU system, in hopes that it will lower tuition. If education funding goes up, however, other state programs must be cut.
“We’re arguing against welfare and prison funding,” Chavez said.
Though there are no clear public policy solutions, Siqueiros said he hopes that Obama’s income-based repayment plan for student loans will be successful.
Another issue discussed was the rising costs of college education. Chavez and Siqueiros agreed that though intangible elements add to the value of a degree, ultimately the real value comes from employment.
“I went to college to get those things so I could get a job so I wouldn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck,” Siqueiros said.
Adrienne Liu, a sophomore majoring in political economy, said that current students should make more of an effort to inform potential students of the economic opportunities to attend USC.
“As a recipient of a merit scholarship I think it can seem daunting to middle-class and especially lower-class students, but USC offers many [financial] resources,” Liu said.
Next week’s Students Talk Back forum will focus on immigration reform.