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Davis, California

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Column: On tuition and protests

We as a society have a very important decision to make.

As the economy remains weak and the perennial California budget crisis drags on, the subject of cuts to education becomes very touchy. With the $500 million cut to the UC system already finalized, the only question for us students is whether that number will grow or not, as Republicans and Democrats in the capital wrestle over the enormous budget deficit and the possibility of new taxes.

The question for our society is what exactly the educational rights of us young people are. What financial obligations does the government (i.e., the taxpayer) have to the post-secondary student?

Very few would argue that the taxpayer should not be subsidizing our K-12 education system. There may be smarter ways to do it than we use right now, but the basic idea of free, compulsory education for our children is to me an untouchable right and necessity that we have cherished for more than a century.

Similarly, I think few would argue that government-paid education should cover a lifetime of degrees for the education junkies out there. Somewhere in between the two is a magical “line” at which we declare that additional education for one cannot invariably come at the expense of all.

Student protesters at colleges across the state – ours included – have not shied away from making the issue as dramatic as possible. Spokespeople have denounced the “privatization of our universities” and the “suffering” that “the system” creates, leading to the current “struggles.” There have even been comparisons made to the marches and riots for freedom from dictators in the Middle East.

The answer to this question, I must admit, is something of an arbitrary, philosophical one. To say that we should fully subsidize education through the age of 18 (the approximate high school graduation age) but not spend much money beyond that would likely produce a flurry of questions from my 10-year-old niece. What about 18 and two months? How about 18 and five weeks? No, no, 18 and 42 seconds?

My answer to the above central question, then, relies instead on a quote from a famous author of the American Revolution. “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776.

Speaking to the “dearness” of my own education, when I graduated high school in 2002, I deferred admission to UC Davis for a full year in order to work full time at a local grocery store and save up money. I bagged groceries, gathered carts, stocked shelves and ran around fetching things. Sometimes I’d clean bathrooms and clear up after night crew for the 3 a.m. to noon utility clerk shift.

 Most of those mornings, somewhere around 5 a.m., sick of the endless mess and the smell of the floor-cleaning machines, without a moment of sleep to survive on, I’d go postal on some poor hapless cardboard box that tripped me. Usually it seemed to be in the toilet paper aisle, which was appropriate given how crappy that shift was.

Yet in that year I managed to save $13,000 and about 97 percent of my income, earning me the 2003 Great Depression Imitator Award which was made with dust, scraps of wood and empty promises from Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

My savings, combined with a very meager living, many loans and a little help from my parents, got me through college semi-independently. My point is not that I had the hardest time paying for college. I know for a fact that, with rapidly increasing tuition and some students who can’t even get partial help from their folks, there are tougher stories out there.

Rather, I am addressing the idea that we young people have such a right to heavily subsidized post-secondary education that we must protest en masse, hold sit-ins and shut down intersections and freeways. If we’re going to wave around our B.A. or B.S. and expect thousands of dollars in additional annual income for the rest of our lives, that piece of paper better have some meaning to it. I know mine sure does.

Obviously, if we can get more help from the state to make the education within the reach of more young people, that is a good thing. But if our state is in a terrible fiscal crisis, and the solution is to raise already high taxes, hurting businesses and job creation and chasing even more rich people (whose tax dollars we desperately need) out of the state, I must part ways with the protesters.

We have a right to pursue a college education. Unfortunately, we do not have a right for it to be cheap.

ROB OLSON will esteem your e-mails dearly at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.


  1. I can’t even say too much here because basically every sentence I’ve read by Olson I have disagreed with with every cell in my body. So, to address everything would take me a month. My reaction to the most egregious idea in this article is summed up pretty well by Lukacs. I definitely have noticed a running theme of straw man fallacious arguments in Olson’s columns. Clearly, “education junkies” have nothing to do with affording all Americans higher education. It is very simple to impose limits on undergrad government funding, as ie the SMART grant does. That you were lucky enough to afford college education is not a valid argument to suggest that all Americans have that opportunity. I would love to see my tax money used to give all Americans higher education because just as K-12 education is a good idea for our country, so is higher education. Every adult in this country has voting power. Wouldn’t you like to see more of those votes come from educated people? Wouldn’t you like to see poor Americans have an alternative to slinging drugs to get by in this country? I know that is just one extreme example. It would be a straw man for me to say that that is the only alternative to education. But, I believe that the entire country would benefit from people born into poverty having opportunities. And let’s face it, the 1 kid out of millions born into ghettos who has that rare combination of extraordinary talent and a lot of luck that is necessary to become a NBA star or lil Wayne or Ben Carson does not prove that that is a possibility for all if they just “work hard enough.” Not everyone has white male middle class privilege like Olson.

  2. I prefer thinker to ‘education junkie’. Thank you.

    One of the main problems of the university, as it stands, is the constant entering and exiting of students who plan to use their lunchbox education as a means of economic gain. These students undermine the university as an institution of enlightenment: their primary concern is not with the formation of an intellect but rather the formation of a competitive body by title.

    Of course, the problem just described is the greatest irony of the university: the university must produce these bodies in order to survive and maintain its position within the social environment.

    That having been said, the article says nothing. It attempts to rationalize something without knowing how to rationalize or criticize it. The author is a product of a system and looks back on the same system in an attempt to understand it; his gaze—from the beginning—was destined to blunder and did.

  3. Why the scare quotes around words like privatization, suffering, and struggles? Are we to understand that these things exist only in the fevered imagination of protesters, or is this a mechanical gesture at an ironic effect that the author is incapable of really creating?

    If the author were honest he would stop writing columns against straw men like “education junkies” accumulating a “lifetime of degrees” and he would stop pretending that the protesters—adults, all of them, not “young people”—are spoiled brats merely concerned with the price tag of an education. If he would listen to the students and professors who have been opposing privatization—a trend that predates the “terrible fiscal crisis” now used as a convenient justification—he would know that they have much broader concerns about things like access to education, student and faculty self-governance and the restoration of the social compact that created public universities in the first place.

    But, judging by Rob’s recycling of Reaganomics, he either just finished a fifth viewing of his favorite movie, Atlas Shrugged, or he hasn’t been paying attention to much of anything these last few years. (Hint: rich people and corporations don’t actually pay taxes. Not that taxing them more is the solution. The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.)


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