Even With Higher Fees, San Diego State Is a National Bargain – and That’s a Problem

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By Peter C. Herman

Should San Diego State University raise student fees by $500 to pay for more faculty? Unsurprisingly, President Elliot Hirshman’s proposal met with furious opposition. Higher fees, the argument goes, cut down on access and raise student debt.  Add to that the usual distrust of California State University administrators, who in the past were all too happy to make college more expensive while raising salaries for top administrators and coaches.

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But what happened in the past is not what is happening now. The proposed fee will not feed administrative bloat or pay for a luxurious sports complex few students will use. Instead, this fee will pay for more faculty to teach the classes students need so they can be educated and graduate more or less on time.

San Diego State University, Hepner Hall. Photo by Chris Stone

What about adding to student debt and narrowing access? These are real concerns, to be sure, but keep a couple of points in mind.  It’s certainly true that students will have to pay more, but not a lot more. We are talking about a rise of only $500 gradually phased in over four years.  Also, the fee increase will not impact access because a fund will be created (paid for by private donations) to ensure that nobody has to leave San Diego State due to increased costs.

But, the objectors continue, this additional fee comes on top of a long series of past increases. True again. Tuition rose 16 percent annually between 2000 and 2005.  Yet even after those raises, San Diego State University remains ridiculously cheap.

According to US News and World Report, our tuition stands at $6,578 a year, way below our peer institutions:

  • Ohio State University: $10,037
  • Arizona State University: $10,002
  • Georgia State University: $9,928
  • Virginia Commonwealth University: $12,002
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County, $10,068
  • University of Alabama, Birmingham: $8,904
  • University of Rhode Island, $12,450

With several thousand dollars between SDSU and the next most expensive school—University of Alabama, Birmingham—we are obviously a bargain. But that bargain comes at a cost.

Before the economic crisis hit, SDSU’s low tuition was possible because the State of California invested in public higher education. The “Master Plan” that set out the framework for higher education (UC, CSU, community colleges) hoped that the state would pay for tuition, and while the legislature never picked up the whole tab, the government largely subsidized tuition, making possible the very low cost of attending college in California.

But when the economy cratered, state funding fell by an astonishing amount.  Between 2007 and 2011, SDSU’s state appropriation declined by more than half: from $221 million to $103 million.  True, things have improved since 2011. State funding increased to $143 million, but we are still $78 million, or 35 percent, below 2007’s level.  State funding now accounts for only 20 percent of our total budget of about $750 million.

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As state support plummeted, so did the quality of education. In the name of “cost efficiencies,” class sizes ballooned to the point where an upper-division English class had 50 or 60 students. Writing classes have between 25 and 30 students. And there are a lot fewer classes as SDSU does not have the funds to hire enough faculty. So students struggle to find space in required classes, which fill up very quickly. Those who don’t get in have to delay graduation. And those lucky enough to get a seat find themselves in classes so overcrowded that it’s rare professors know their students’ names, let alone give each student the individual attention they need and deserve.

The library’s budget has dwindled, leaving students and professors without the necessary resources for their research. Basic maintenance has been delayed or abandoned because we no longer have the staff.

President Hirshman’s proposal to hire 80 additional faculty (one hopes tenure-track) to teach 360 more course sections will not completely solve these problems.  The College of Arts and Letters, SDSU’s largest college, next year plans next year to hire only five new professors. There have been five retirements in my department alone over the last few years.  And the amount of money the fee increase will bring in does not come anywhere near to closing the funding gap. Only doubling or even tripling tuition can do that. Or the legislature can increase funding. In the meantime, raising student fees by a small amount to pay for more faculty is a start, and a necessary one.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism.

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