The headline in this week's San Jose Mercury News, "Harvard Now Cheaper Than Cal State," may have shocked many across the country. But for California's families and students, it reflects the reality of millions who have struggled for years with the rising cost of higher education. California leads the nation in tuition increases, with a 300 percent rise in costs since 2001. For a system that used to be a model for the nation, these skyrocketing costs are shameful -- and coupled with the recession has put a college education out of reach for many of California's young people.
When my family moved to the United States from Mexico, I was told by my high school teachers and counselors that I shouldn't even consider college. Despite graduating in the top 10 of my class, I was still told that my place was in the fields, where my parents work.
Like many Latino families across the state, my parents worked hard every day with the hope of being able to send their children to college. And I worked hard too, studying hard to prove those teachers and counselors wrong. But for all the hard work, the tuition hikes still left that dream -- and the Cal system -- out of reach. With the Latino community in California on the path to becoming the majority, we are doing a major disservice to my generation by denying today's children access to quality and affordable education. Now is not the time to abandon our children and families.
That's why this week, I helped lead 165 of my fellow Fresno-area college students to Sacramento for Monday's "Occupy the Capitol" march for education, where we stood with thousands of other students from across the state. We took our demands directly to Governor Brown and the California Assembly: no tuition hikes, no more higher education cuts, and stand behind solutions that will make the banks and the 1 percent pay their share to refund education. With painful budget cuts rendering universities short-staffed, and overwhelming tuition hikes leaving many students unable to pay, we urged today's political leaders to stand up for the future leaders of California.
We were there to protest cuts, but also to pose a solution. At a "people's assembly" inside the Capitol rotunda, student protesters voted on their demands and policy priorities for the governor and the legislature -- what we wanted out of this day of action. The number one priority was the "millionaires tax" ballot initiative, which has also been endorsed by the U.C. Student Association, representing more than 250,000 Cal State students. The millionaires tax would guarantee billions in dedicated funding for higher education, as well as funding for K-12 schools, children's and senior services, public safety, and other key infrastructure that has been decimated by state budget cuts.
On Tuesday, the governor tried to claim that a less effective ballot initiative -- one that does not guarantee funding for higher education, and includes a sales tax -- is an adequate response to the outpouring of enthusiasm and anger in Sacramento. It is not: the millionaires tax is the only ballot initiative that makes the 1 percent pay and that guarantees new revenue for higher education. In the latest poll, it is the clear choice of Californians.
With California leading the nation in tuition hikes, too many California students have been forced to take on massive student loan debt. Unfortunately, due to this recession caused by the reckless action of Wall Street bankers, our generation has been called the "lost generation," with millions of college students left unemployed after graduation. It's time for millionaires and corporations to pay their fair share.
By marching in Sacramento this week -- and on campuses last week, last November and over the past few months of activism and action -- I have felt a real sense of unity and purpose within my community. From all parts of the state, thousands of students took the trip to Sacramento to make their voices heard. Together, students are uniting to fight for a quality, affordable education system -- and we're offering solutions to make those goals a reality.
Chucho Mendoza is a Chicano and Latin American Studies Major at California State University - Fresno, and is part of the ReFund California coalition, a statewide coalition of students, teachers, homeowners, and faith leaders working to make Wall Street and the 1% pay to solve the economic crisis they created.