What Mo Learned at Law School

When the University of California's Boalt Hall Law School reneged on its promise to hold fees flat, Mo Kashmiri used his legal training.

When the University of California approved massive tuition hikes in the early ’90s, students staged giant protests and took over Cal’s Moffitt Library. But this time around, after UC regents voted to boost student fees by as much as 30 percent, infuriated students responded in a more orderly fashion: they sued.

Maybe that’s what officials get for aiming the lion’s share of the fee increases at professional students, those studying graduate disciplines such as medicine, nursing, and — more to the point — law. This week, eight professional students, including three from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, will go to court asking a judge to rule that they don’t have to pay heightened fees this fall. A second part of the class-action suit will ask for the return of the extra fees they already paid for spring and summer sessions.

The students’ argument is simple. They say that on a variety of brochures and on the UC Office of the President’s Web site, the system explicitly promised that students’ professional degree fees would not increase during their tenure. While the suing students agree that UC has the right to adjust fees for each new class of incoming scholars, they say that one reason they chose to attend UC schools was because they believed the price of their education would remain constant. Worse, they say the UC system failed to alert students of the fee increases promptly, forcing them to cough up extra money at the last minute.

The UC system has boosted student fees three times since last December. The UC regents voted in an 11.2 percent increase in December, but the students claim they were not notified until February, well after they had registered and paid for spring classes. At the end of May, fees were raised for the summer session, but the students say they were not alerted until five days before classes started. Then in late July, the regents unleashed the real whammy, a 25 percent increase, plus an additional 5 percent that could be tacked on by each campus’ president.

Fees for professional students are generally higher than those for undergrads, so they’ve borne the brunt of each increase. Payment for the fall session is due August 15 — just two days after the injunction hearing, making it touch-and-go for some students who are putting off registering for next fall until they hear the judge’s decision. And while the UC system recently claimed that financial aid grants will absorb the total fee hike for undergraduates whose families make less than $60,000 a year, and defray half for those whose families make under $90,000, these aid offers don’t apply to professional students.

The students’ transition from livid to litigious began with UCSF medical student Janet Lee, who wrote UC’s president that the fee hike violated the university’s promises. In response, she got a letter stating that the regents can change their own rules. “I was kind of upset and I didn’t know the legal channels to go through,” she remembers. Then she ran across Boalt Hall student Mo Kashmiri at a meeting of the University of California Students Association, a network for student leaders from the various UC campuses. Kashmiri already had a reputation at Cal as an activist, having won his post as a student senator on a single-item platform: no fee hikes. Better yet, he was two-thirds of the way through a law degree. It didn’t take Kashmiri much time after hearing Lee’s story to render an expert opinion: “I was, like, ‘Hey, that’s not legal! They can’t do that. ‘”

The two hooked up with some similarly minded students, and sent a letter to the UC regents, spoke at their meetings, and attended a lobby day at the state Capitol in April. They launched a Web site, EducationIsaRight.org. And finally, they contacted a sympathetic law firm and filed suit.

What will the rate hikes do to the students? Kashmiri, the eldest child in a family with three college-age students and only one working parent, already funnels his student aid checks to his younger brothers. He estimates he’ll be $100,000 in debt by the time he graduates, and worries that if he can’t stop the fee hike he’ll have to take a few years off to work and save money. Or take Benson Cohen, another Boalt plaintiff who is looking at a $70,000 debt himself, who is financially independent and next year will make ends meet by working as a graduate student instructor, teaching fifty political science students on top of preparing for the bar exam. “Between that, the money I earn this summer, and taking out the full complement of student loans, I should be able to complete my degree,” he says, somewhat anxiously. Or take Lee, who lucked out by winning a fellowship that will give her a research year paid for by UCSF. But once that year is over, she says, she’s not sure how she’ll pay the increased fees. Although she has applied for scholarships, she estimates that she may end up $85,000 in debt.

That said, all three acknowledge that they are the more fortunate students in California’s public higher education system. In July, trustees for the Cal State University system also voted in a 30 percent fee increase on top of a previous 10 percent increase. “The biggest problem isn’t even at the UC,” Kashmiri admits. “It’s the CSUs and the community colleges who are taking the real big hits. There’s a lot of students in the CSUs and the community colleges who won’t be back.”

Public education experts agree that as tuition rises, so does the dropout rate. So does attrition among potential applicants worried about the cost. When student fees at UC schools rose 133 percent between 1991 and 1994, it resulted in an estimated loss of 200,000 students, enough to add an extra percentage point to the unemployment rate. According to Will Doyle, senior policy analyst for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, every thousand-dollar increase in tuition leads to a 4 percent drop in enrollment among 18- to 24-year–olds. The dropout rate has a more marked effect on community college students and those with lower incomes.

In a letter written to students’ families shortly after the fee hikes were announced, UC president Richard Atkinson noted that after the rate hikes of the early ’90s, fees stayed flat for seven years, thanks to the state’s economic rebound. And UC spokesman Hanan Eisenman says that resident undergraduates at UC schools still pay an average of $1,200 less than students at one at the “comparison schools” by which the UC system judges itself: the public universities in Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, and SUNY Buffalo.

Eisenman lays blame for the skyrocketing tuition prices squarely on the California legislature, which has doomed the UC system to $410 million in budget cuts for the 2003-04 year. “Those are cuts to libraries, research, professional development, and many others,” he says. “All our programs besides the core instructional budget are being cut.” He says the university is struggling to keep the cuts from affecting the quality of instruction, and is looking at additional ways to conserve cash, including borrowing money and placing caps on future student enrollment.

As for the suit’s contention that the university violated its promises to students, Eisenman maintains that the regents were well within their rights. “While the regents do make every effort to keep fees stable for entering groups of students, the policy clearly states that fees are subject to change, and also that regental policy may be amended by the regents at any time,” he says. Eisenman says the system did everything it could to quickly notify students, but was at the mercy of last-minute changes from the state legislature: “We feel we’ve done the best we can with the state budget situation being so volatile.”

The students find both claims highly debatable. After all, the 2003 catalogue for Boalt Hall clearly states that “the professional degree fee remains at the same level for the three years in which the student is enrolled in the program.” And according to the students’ suit, the Office of the President’s Web site once promised: “The fee would remain the same for each student for the duration of his or her enrollment in the professional degree program.” The text is now mysteriously missing.

Nor do they agree that a UC education is such a great bargain. “It’s very deceptive,” Kashmiri says. “They constantly claim that we have some of the lowest fees in the nation, which is true, but that’s because we’ve kept it down because the cost of housing in UC is the highest in the nation. Once you add that in, one year of living on campus for the undergrads is over twenty grand now. If you’re a law or professional student like me, it’s over $30,000 now. It’s just down to the point where budget cut after budget cut after budget cut, they’ve essentially eliminated public higher education. I mean, that’s what private schools used to cost.”

Finally, what really rankles the students is that they don’t think paying more tuition will necessarily benefit their particular programs. “This money is being taken out of law students, but it’s not going back to the law students or the school,” Cohen says. “It’s going to the General Fund. It’s going to Sacramento to buy new furniture for the chancellor’s office, for all I know.”

While the professional students eligible to join the class action suit make up only about 9,500 of the system’s 197,000 students, their fate will have sweeping ramifications for the university, which potentially would have to pay back millions in fees if the students are victorious. How would the system recoup that loss? One worrying possibility is that it will just pass on the cost to next year’s entering students.

It’s a dismal fate for an institution designed to guarantee college access to the top 10 percent of the state’s high school graduates. Education advocates worry that those students may soon be outpriced or — if the regents limit enrollment — turned away altogether. “The commitment from California has always been that if you’ve done what’s required of you, there’s going to be a spot, and we’re backing away from that commitment,” Doyle says. Worse, the university is about to face a youth population surge known to education types as “Tidal Wave II” that is expected to be more college-oriented than any other generation before it, largely because teenagers know they’ll need a degree to get a decent job. What will happen if they can’t afford public school? “Without that access you’re really threatening people’s ability to get into the middle class,” Doyle says.

In the meantime, Kashmiri, who describes the students’ legal adventures as “terribly fun,” seems to enjoy the irony of using his newly minted lawyering skills to sue the very education system that taught him how to file a brief. He’s come to view the suit as a sort of extracurricular legal clinic that is teaching him the nitty-gritty of legal work as well as how to deal with the political pressures involved in taking on an institution as powerful as the UC regents. “I feel like this is the best education they’ve given me so far,” he says.

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