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Tuition hikes at 23 public California colleges make students question: ‘Is it even worth it?’

When trustees at California State University (Cal State or CSU), one of the nation’s largest public university systems, decided to raise tuition, Crystal Chavira-Ordunez worried not only about their future but also their siblings’ future.

Chavira-Ordunez, a first-generation Mexican American, will be the first in their family to graduate from Cal State East Bay after transferring from a community college in the fall of 2022. To make life more manageable, they worked three jobs and took out loans to afford their housing in one of the most expensive areas in the country.

A 6% increase appeared small. It amounted to $342 for every student in the first year. But when Chavira-Ordunez discussed the tuition rise with their sister, who has been considering attending Cal State Fullerton to pursue a K-12 teaching program, she bristled.

“She asked: ‘Is it even worth it?’” Chavira-Ordunez said.

For many within the CSU system, which enrolls nearly 460,000 students, such an increase could amount to deciding whether to pay for books or to take on another job beyond their coursework. At a time when the cost of attending college has increasingly gotten more expensive over the decades, CSU’s costs remained relatively flat for 11 of the last 12 years.

But faced with a $1.5bn budget deficit and a years-long enrollment decline, trustees in September voted to raise tuition costs, prompting backlash from students and faculty alike. While attending the CSU system is seen as a path of upward mobility to many, students to whom the Guardian spoke said that a tuition increase, which is expected to rise to more than $2,000 over six years, would cause people to question whether the cost of pursuing higher education within the historically affordable school system would be worthwhile.

Students walk on the campus of Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Calif.Students walk on the campus of Cal State East Bay in Hayward, California. Photograph: Anda Chu/MediaNews Group/Getty Images

The CSU website noted that 60% of the system’s students would avoid the impact of the higher tuition because it would be covered by grants and waivers, and over the course of five years it would generate $860m in revenue, with a third going toward financial assistance programs for students. “[T]he CSU is committed to keeping costs as low as possible and providing support for students with the greatest financial need,” said the system’s vice-chancellor and chief financial officer, Steve Relyea.

The tuition hike would bring the cost for an undergraduate attending a CSU school next year to $5,762. In five years, that would rise to $7,682. The Public Policy Institute of California also found that while tuition within the CSU system has risen just once since the Great Recession, students’ fees for health services and materials have also increased over time, leading the combined cost of attending CSU schools to rise to between $8,000 and $9,000 by 2028. By comparison, the average cost for an undergraduate attending a four-year public institution in the US rose from $9,100 in 2011 to $9,700 in 2022.

The rise in tuition, just one aspect of the attendance cost, could disproportionately affect not only students from low-income families, but also Black and Latino students. They are more likely to graduate with debt than their white and Asian peers. What’s more, nearly 80% of those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree had household incomes of less than $54,000. Roughly eight in 10 students already receive financial aid.

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Approximately three-quarters of Black students across CSU’s 23 campuses – who account for 4% of students – graduate with debt. For Latino students, who account for nearly 40% of students across the system, that figure is 57% compared with just under half of white students. All together, the higher sticker price could induce fear among current and aspiring college students who view the higher cost of education as a deterrent, particularly if they need to take on more debt to attend college.

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Dominic Quan Treseler, a senior at San Jose State University and president of the Cal State Students Association, the group that represents CSU students, says the tuition hike has yet to hit most students, arguing that there has been a lack of outreach and engagement on it.

“There’s a lot of hurt, a sense of despair and not knowing what this is going to mean for themselves,” Quan Treseler said. “We’re already seeing declining enrollment across the system, so when a system is in a crisis now, it’s unrealistic to think that this can help other campuses.”

Kailyn Wilkerson, who will graduate from Cal State Long Beach in December, wondered how college life might change as the cost of attendance becomes more expensive. She noted that she, like Chavira-Ordunez, had been interested in pursuing her master’s degree, adding she would look into obtaining grants and scholarships to make it work.

Still, Wilkerson saw friends of hers that were already struggling with paying tuition as they tried to make a living, and she wondered if enrollment rates for Black and Latino students might fall. For her, an increase in tuition meant the difference between making a car payment and rent.

“Are they hanging out on campus?” Wilkerson asked. “Or do they have to go to work to pay for school and that’s about it? What would college life be any more? For a lot of us, there are so many barriers in our day-to-day lives without school. School is another added thing we have to think about.”

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Isaac Alferos, a higher education equity research and data analyst for the Education Trust-West and a graduate of Cal State Fullerton, worries about how the tuition increase will resonate beyond California. He sees the rise in tuition costs as “emblematic [of a] systemic change that the state needs to do about getting serious with addressing educational equity”.

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Alferos comes from a family with deep roots across in the CSU system, with nine of of his relatives having graduated from various CSU schools. What drew him to Fullerton was its affordability. He wanted a degree that he could afford, and he considers himself fortunate to have graduated in May 2022 without debt.

But he acknowledges the same cannot be said for his peers. A former president of the Cal State Students Association, Alferos thinks about the students who are not only attending school but also taking care of their children and working at the same time. He noted that one out of every 10 students said they were unhoused and two in five students said they were food insecure. “We have allowed as a state an environment for students who are not supported,” he said.

The Cal State Students Association, the group representing CSU students, says the tuition hike has yet to hit most students, arguing that there has been a lack of outreach and engagement on it.The Cal State Students Association, the group representing CSU students, says the tuition hike has yet to hit most students, arguing that there has been a lack of outreach and engagement on it. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

So when he reflected on the tuition increase, he saw beyond the cost of one aspect of a student’s education. Housing, food, gas, books – all of those weigh on the costs of navigating life as a student pursuing education in increasingly expensive California. “Most of those are just the cost to survive and technically call yourself a student,” Alferos says, adding: “The sobering reality is that a number of students and families like mine with a history have to consider that we may be the last in our family to get their degrees in the CSU.”

For the summer, Chavira-Ordunez moved back to the Los Angeles area to live with their five siblings and two parents in a two-bedroom apartment to save on the costs of living in the Bay Area. Chavira-Ordunez, who is pursuing a double major in criminal justice and sociology, had to limit what classes they could take that summer because they needed to choose remote courses that fit their schedule.

They are still considering whether to pursue their master’s degree and become a professor. Still, they said the tuition increase meant they had to skip buying some textbooks for class. “I won’t be able to pay for the material that my professors are asking me for in order to thrive in this class,” Chavira-Ordunez said. “So I’d be paying for an F, ultimately.”

When applications opened this month, Chavira-Ordunez noticed their sister asking their parents whether they could afford to pay the difference. Their supportive mother “didn’t have the same energy” as when Chavira-Ordunez first attended school.

“I’m like, damn, I wish my sister could have had that sky’s-the-limit opportunity that I was able to have,” Chavira-Ordunez said.