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Cal Poly proposes campus-based fee increase to improve financial aid

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The most expensive institution in the California State University (CSU) system is about to get a bit more costly for some.

In a bid to boost its "inadequate financial aid and underfunded academic mission," Cal Poly proposed to raise its campus-based fees between $650 and $880 per academic year for students joining this fall. This increase will be repeated for the fall cohorts of 2023, 2024, and 2025.

"Thereafter, fall of 2026 and beyond, the fee will increase by a cost of living index. Initially, we plan to use 60 percent of the additional revenue to increase financial aid. This will be adjusted on an annual basis," said Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong in the official explainer video.

FEE EXPLAINER Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong said that increasing campus-based fees is the only available way to ensure the university's "continued excellence." - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Cal Poly
  • FEE EXPLAINER Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong said that increasing campus-based fees is the only available way to ensure the university's "continued excellence."

The fee hike would not apply to current Cal Poly students, but some of them feel it's unfair to incoming students.

"The reason that this is concerning now is that it was sort of released during midterm season ... so a lot of the students didn't even know the full extent of what the fee contained. This was less of a proposal and more of a warning of what was to happen," said Gracie Babatola, a second-year Cal Poly student.

Babatola is also a member of a group called Abolitionist Action Central Coast—a social justice group that has been vocal online about resisting the new fee structure. She and her peer Alejandro Bupara, another Cal Poly student, said that the university failed at listening to student voices.

"They're actually supposed to have a university-wide referendum before raising campus-based fees. But if they don't want to have [one], they have to justify [why]. In this case, it's really clear that they're not doing a referendum because they know that students have voted down fee increases in the past," Bupara said.

Matt Lazier, Cal Poly's media relations director, explained via email that the university opted for a different CSU-approved avenue to gather community input: "alternative consultation." But Armstrong has the final say on adjusting the fees irrespective of which avenue is selected.

"Cal Poly chose alternative consultation because it allows for broader campus community input (comment from employees and other university community members in addition to comment from students) and allows for the proposal to be adjusted based on the feedback received from campus community members. That is not true of a referendum," Lazier said. "Alternative consultation also allows us to solve problems inherent in the process of current students making decisions for future students."

Though Cal Poly received a record total of more than 65,000 applications last fall, Armstrong announced in the video that many applicants ultimately opted for schools in the University of California system that have a lower cost after financial aid kicks in. The spike in fees is meant to increase financial aid packages and faculty salaries, with the aim of retaining more selected applicants by lowering the cost of attendance for some students.

Lazier explained that students with annual family incomes of less than $90,000 would receive first priority, followed by those with family incomes between $90,000 and $150,000 a year.

"After that, depending on funding available, we would look at other student populations outside of those priorities—for instance lower-income out-of-state students," Lazier said.

Bupara and Babatola criticized this priority layout, calling it exclusionary toward out-of-state, international, and undocumented students. They also have a suggestion to improve financial aid without fee hikes: administrative pay cuts.

"Administrative bloat has been a huge problem on the Cal Poly campus for years. Jeff Armstrong gets housing allowances and a car. I know he's not the only overpaid administrator," Bupara said. "We're in a time of historic budgetary surplus for California. Even the budget that came back from the Legislature is more than the CSU thought it would be."

According Transparent California salary data, Armstrong was the fourth-highest paid employee in the CSU system as of 2020. His total pay and benefits in 2020 amounted to $599,308—more than twice what California Gov. Gavin Newsom earned that year.

A 2019 state audit report called out Cal Poly for having the highest mandatory fee increase (72 percent). The report also stated that mandatory fees aren't usually included in financial aid coverage, though Lazier said that the new aid structure would cover those costs.

Bupara added that tapping in to external sources of funding would also strengthen financial support.

"President Armstrong's job is fundraising anyway right? We've seen how well he can fundraise when it's for things he wants like fancy buildings and labs on the Cal Poly campus," he said. "We believe they should increase financial aid, but that should not be tied to an across-the-board fee increase for students." Δ

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