From CartoonBrew.

March 22, 2019; Hyperallergic

Like their peers all over the US, students at California Institute of the Arts (better known as CalArts) face increasingly high tuition bills each year, and they’re reaching a breaking point. Students have both protested the tuition hikes and attempted to raise funds for the university, and the board has recognized their efforts and committed to doing something about it.

Earlier this month, students protested outside a board meeting at which the budget, including a 4.5 percent tuition hike, was approved. This brought CalArts’ tuition over the $50,000 mark for the first time, although tuition has been rising for ten straight years. Students held signs saying, “You are nothing without us.”

Then, last weekend, students took a different angle: They attended the REDCAT Gala and asked the “deep-pocketed donors” in attendance for contributions to a scholarship fund. MFA student Alia Ali offered the gala’s closing remarks and said, “While we are honoring a distinguished alumni [sic] tonight, we remind you that there are future honorees in their studios right now at CalArts that will not have the opportunity to graduate or receive this award because of the cost of attendance.” James Wolken, Executive Director of Marketing at CalArts, said the students raised about $20,000.

In response to these actions, the university seems sympathetic. President Ravi S. Rajan, whose tenure began in 2016, said, “Higher education has followed a system for many years and we’re at a breaking point. This is the higher education crisis we’re hearing about.” Rajan’s office helped students design the donation cards they passed out the gala and coordinate the donations. When the students showed up to protest the board meeting a couple of weeks ago, 39 of them—one for each board member—were allowed into the meeting to read a letter to the board. The board itself contains a student representative, Pablo Leñero. (Notably, Leñero has a GoFundMe page to help fund his tuition; the university itself admits that funding for international students is “very limited and highly competitive.”)

The students have drafted a petition that describes CalArts as being in “a state of crisis” and makes the following demands:

  • Apply the 2018/2019 tuition rate of $48,660 to all currently enrolled continuing students until they graduate.
  • Include students as at least 51 percent of the Budget Committee in order to collectively make decisions regarding the allocation of resources.
  • Reschedule the March 12th Board of Trustees vote pertaining to the 2019/2020 budget by April 19th in order to allow students to participate in the process.
  • Notify students directly and immediately of any recommendation to change tuition and fees before the trustees vote and be notified of the results of this vote on the same day.
  • Create a sub-committee of the Board of Trustees that includes high participation from students, faculty, staff and trustees in order to address the tuition cost crisis.
  • Create an oversight committee with student participation to analyze and improve the processes in which the discount rate is applied throughout the Institute.

The board has not acquiesced to these demands. However, they did emerge from their meeting with a surprising set of resolutions:

  • Have greater transparency with the student body.
  • To make faculty, staff, and student more active participants in the board’s decision-making process.
  • Re-evaluate how financial aid packages are handled in the case of continuing students with demonstrable financial need.
  • Analyzing how financial aid is distributed and why the school’s tuition is rising so rapidly.

Rajan said he is “committed to the radical transparency that would be required to create a dialogue with the students, and I’m excited for that.” He also said that the rapid tuition rise was due to the increasing cost of salaries and wages, which is rising faster than inflation.

The 2016 Form 990 shows that more than half the university’s expenses (a little over $45 million) did indeed go to salaries and wages. However, it also shows that student tuition and fees account for about 75 percent of the budget.

CalArts’ fees are high, but they aren’t unusual for a private university. Ten years ago, for the 2008–2009 school year, tuition and fees at CalArts cost about $50,000, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. This year, according to that same data set, tuition and fees cost nearly $62,000. According to the fee schedule on the university’s website, the actual cost of attending the university (including estimates for medical and recreational expenses) was about $78,000.

The students correctly diagnosed the problem when they wrote, “We are the institute’s largest funders and it is imperative that we have a seat at the table. For many of us, this tuition increase is the difference between continuing our studies and having to leave CalArts.” CalArts’ money problems aren’t unusual, but the willingness of the board to respond positively is heartening, and we hope to see real change.—Erin Rubin