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California's College Crisis

JT Kopczynski, Research Intern SBNC

July 2021

California Universities are among the most well-known and most prestigious public colleges in the country. With a strong Division I sports team as well as great academics, such as UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley, California’s public colleges offer a great opportunity for both academic students and student athletes. However, despite their prowess in academics and sports, the conference faces issues regarding costs, as costs have increased dramatically through the years and now have the highest tuition and fees in the United States, with universities such as Harvey Mudd and University of Southern California leading the charge (College Tuition Compare). This has led to an increase in depression and other mental issues in these universities over the years (California Budget and Policy Center) and student homelessness rising in the past decade (Sudikoff Institute Public Form).

The average California college student finishes with more than $20,000 in student debt on average (Mello, 2020). For example, San Jose State University, a relatively inexpensive university in California, had a tuition of $796 in the 1987 - 1988 year ($1,811.32 in today’s terms) to a $7,337 tuition in 2021, meaning that tuition in a relatively inexpensive university quadrupled in just 3 decades. San Jose State is far from the exception here, as UC’s (University of California) and CSU’s (California State University) on the whole have seen an exorbitant increase. With UC’s, resident and non-resident students would have respectively paid $3,000 and $11,000 per semester in the 1970’s in 2019 dollars but now respectively pay around $19,000 and $44,000. CSU’s had around $600 tuition in 2019 dollars but now have around $5,900 tuition.

With more money for college going to tuition, this has naturally led to the rise in other issues, such as food insecurity, as 44% of students in UC’s (EdSource) suffered from food insecurity. This number is around 46% among CSU students (Crutchfield et al, 2021). African Americans are the group most affected by this, as 60% of African American students 59% of Hispanic students in UC’s had food insecurity, and in CSU’s, that number was respectively 59% and 47% (Martinez, Maynard, Ritchie, 2016).

There is a price to this, as students with very high food insecurity had 4.52 times higher rates of depression than food-secure students (Reeder et al, 2020), and higher rates of depression are naturally going to make it harder for students to focus on their assignments, thereby lowering graduation rates, especially among African and Hispanic Americans. Along with this, in CSU’s, 16% of students are receiving some psychological help on campus, and in UC’s, the percentage of students seeking mental health has shot up 78% in the past decade alone. This is an issue as African and Hispanic Americans have the lowest pay among any ethnic group in the United States (Wilson, 2020), so not being able to graduate will make it harder for them to raise their income which will make it harder for their children to be able to. Food insecurity is likely causing a vicious cycle.

Moreover, this high price for California colleges has led to an increase in homelessness among students as well, as 35% of California college students surveyed experienced home insecurity (California Student Aid Commission, 2019). 61% of these students were African or Hispanic Americans, despite being just 49% of all students surveyed. This is a significant issue because students who can’t pay for housing are more likely to drop out, thereby disenfranchising them from the American Dream (Bizjak, Morrar, 2019).

Lastly, more people over 25 with children are attending California universities, as over ⅓ of all California college students are over 25 years old (Mello, 2020). This is largely due to the Great Recession where 4 out of 5 jobs lost during the recession were from people with no formal education or only a high school degree (Carnevale, Jayasundera, Cheah). This has prompted more people over age 25 to begin attending university (Guidry, 2018), and as more people attend university, demand for education rises, leading to even higher prices. A good example of this can be seen in the Robert Reich Documentary, ‘Inequality For All’. In the documentary, there’s a student attending UC Berkeley who is attending UC Berkeley in his 30’s as a parent because of difficulties in getting a job. The struggles of this student reflects more and more students who are attending California Colleges.

Just what has caused this exorbitant increase in the cost of California colleges? One reason is because the state has had less spending on education due to budget shortfalls (Jackson, 2014) and has been on the decline since the Great Recession (Mello, 2020). This can be seen by the fact that spending per student has been dropping constantly (Green, 2017). Another reason is that every UC, minus UC Merced, is a level 1 research institute, meaning they do the most research out of any other university in the US, meaning they’ll get paid more. Another reason would be because of rising administrative costs, as California colleges have seen costs for administrators grow at a faster rate than professors and faculty (Boitnott, 2020). This is likely coming from increased student demand for what they want in universities. Lastly, fees have been on the rise in UC’s and CSU’s, and these fees cover campus-based fees, such as mental health, gym services, and more. All of these lead to the increase in the cost of college in California.

With all this information, the issues that California colleges face is abundantly clear. The more important question, however, is what can be done about it. The Public Policy Institute of California has a list of solutions they offer, and they say the following will be important (Jackson, 2014): first, they note that net tuition among lower income students (family income is less than $75,000 a year) in California has remained the same in both UC’s and CSU’s but that these are quite difficult to advertise to students since they are highly individualized. Creating net price calculators for every California college will help more lower income students feel enticed to go to college. Secondly, they note that many college students whose family earns below $75,000 do not apply for financial aid, leading to higher costs of college for those students who are eligible. Specifically, only 10% of families earning $30,000 to $48,000 a year and 20% of families earning $48,000 to $75,000 a year fill out the FAFSA. Thus, helping more students fill out FAFSA or the California Dream Act will help more students be able to attend college. An example of how to do this would be by having public high schools push students to apply for financial aid because that would be considered a readiness index for colleges. Providing and promoting financial aid to those in need will help more Californians attend college and thereby help more Californians attain the American Dream.

The cost of college has become a significant issue across the country, and this is especially the case in California where schools such as Harvey Mudd and UC Berkeley have risen in cost dramatically. These costs have led to significant external effects as well, such as student hunger, homelessness, and issues concerning mental health. As such, being able to resolve the issue of the cost of college is of primary importance, as that issue creates the other issues. If California is able to provide more financial aid to its students, improve outreach, and ensure more students fill out FAFSA and the California Dream Act, then the golden state will ensure that more of its citizens will be able to achieve the American Dream.


“California Colleges with the Highest Tuition & Fees.” College Tuition Compare, 2021.

Ramos-Yamamoto, Adriana, and Amy Rose. “California College Students Are Increasingly Experiencing Mental Health Issues and Need Improved Support.” California Budget & Policy Center, 12 Feb. 2020.

“Tackling Student Homelessness in California.” Knowledge That Matters, 20 Oct. 2020.

Mello, Felicia. “The Soul-Crushing Cost of College in California, Explained.” CalMatters, 13 Nov. 2019.

Anthony P. Carneavale et al., “The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm”, Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

Crutchfield, Rashida, et al. “It's Time to Take College Student Hunger and Homelessness Seriously - EdSurge News.” EdSurge, 18 Feb. 2021.

Suzanne M. Martinez, Katie Maynard, and Lorrene D. Ritchard, “Student Food Access and Security Study”, University of California Global Food Initiative (2016).

Nicole Reeder et al., “Food Insecurity, Depression, and Race: Correlations Observed Among College Students at a University in Southeastern United States”, National Center for Biotechnology Information (2020).

Wilson, Valerie. “Racial Disparities in Income and Poverty Remain Largely Unchanged amid Strong Income Growth in 2019.” Economic Policy Institute, 16 Sept. 2020.

Wiley, Hannah. “Homeless Crisis at California Colleges Hurts Hispanic and Black Students Most, Report Says .” The Sacramento Bee, 7 Dec. 2019.

Bizjak, Tony, and Sawsan Morrar. “The New Face of Sacramento’s Affordable Housing Crisis: College Students Forced to Drop Out.” The Sacramento Bee, 3 Oct. 2019.

Jackson, Jacob. “Higher Education in California, Student Costs.” Public Policy Institute of California, Nov. 2014.

Green, Matthew. “INTERACTIVE: The Rising Cost of California's Public Universities.” KQED, 27 Jan. 2017.


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