USF witnessed a rare sight on April 30: many top administrators showing up at a student-led forum on the UC 4th floor.
The town hall-style gathering, which attracted about 100 attendees, came after a series of discussions between student leaders from the new group Dons for Fair Tuition and University administrators over the course of a month.
Since USF announced a 4.4% cost increase in March, the student group and others on campus have called for greater transparency and more ways to support low-income students.
The event was moderated by Lester Deanes, assistant vice provost for student engagement, and Dons for Fair Tuition leaders read pre-submitted questions. The majority of the hour-long conversation revolved around financial aid and the school’s operating budget for the fiscal year 2020.
Juniors Cassie Murphy and Corey Kowalczyke, leaders of Dons for Fair Tuition, opened the forum up by introducing their organization and its mission.
Jeff Hamrick, vice provost for institutional budget and planning, then started the response by administrators by presenting an overview of the University’s operating budget In addition to Hamrick, President Paul J. Fitzgerald, Provost Donald E. Heller, VP of Student Life Julie Orio, VP of Marketing Communications Ellen Ryder, Director of Events Garrett O’Doherty and VP for Strategic Enrollment Management Michael Beseda were also in attendance.
Of the administrators who were at the forum, Heller answered the most questions, focusing on the University’s need for the tuition increase.
One of the main points Hamrick made was that the University is heavily reliant on residence hall fees and tuition. (96% of USF’s operating budget comes from these sources of income.) Hamrick also noted that tuition increases generally reflect the rate of inflation in the Bay Area. For example, inflation this year for the Bay Area is 4.4%, which reflects the 4.4% increase in the total cost of education.
Throughout the discussion, Hamrick and Heller said that some of the increase in fees would go towards an additional Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) clinician, an extra public safety officer as well as a second disability shuttle.
“How do you plan on helping students?”
During the forum, one student asked, “How do you plan on helping students after the tuition increase when they can’t afford to come here?”
Beseda encouraged students to visit the financial aid office and seek help if they need help understanding their own financial situation.
Students’ main concern, however, was that they felt misled by the school’s competitive financial aid packages, which are offered up-front but do not increase with the increase in fees. Beseda responded by saying that while merit scholarships given to a student when they first matriculate do not increase, grants and outside scholarships could.
Heller answered the majority of the financial aid questions and said that students should be educated when it comes to taking out loans and reiterated “responsible loan borrowing.” In addition, Heller said that while tuition was going to increase, there would be a 20.4% increase in financial aid from the previous year.
In his answers, Hamrick directed students to the budget documents online.
One student questioned whether or not the University met its own standard of transparency. In regard to the budget documents being available online, one student said, “I don’t think it’s transparent because I can’t understand them.”
Furthermore, Hamrick acknowledged that restructuring and reallocation of funds have forced cuts in certain departments.
A major point of discussion was support for the diverse population of students at USF. A student asked for more support from the University, saying, “Resources for diverse students are being cut. Cuts to the Latinx community. What structural things are going in place?”
Hamrick noted that the Center for Latina/o Studies in the Americas lost its program assistant and is currently sharing one with another center. Orio said that she is looking to address these concerns by working with individual communities. Orio also noted that for the African American community, specifically, retention rates have improved.
“It was really difficult to hear and take in the pain and struggle of students,” Deanes said in an email. It was especially challenging because the issues are complex and the answers can never truly alleviate the frustration in the room.”
Murphy thought the forum went well. “I think that [the administration] did a good job at opening up to answering questions. I see their side too, as it’s hard to answer the harder questions on the spot.”
ASUSF Senate President-elect Hector Bustos was not as pleased. “The administration definitely worked their way around a lot of questions. They’re really good at doing it. It’s upsetting and I hope it is a trend that stops. [Students are] demanding answers. We want to hold the administration accountable”
Heller said in an email, “I was very pleased with the way the forum transpired…and I think we saw the beginning of a good dialogue between the administration and students about issues related to paying for college, how the university budget operates, and what of support students need from USF. I look forward to continuing to work with our students.”
Orio noted in her remarks during the forum that she would be working with the administration to host two forums year, one in the fall and spring, in order to continue the conversation.
“The forum was an important step for USF,” Deanes said. “What’s more important is what happens next for the institution. How do we continue to ensure that current student perspectives are at the center of our decision-making? At the same time, how do we make sure that USF will continue to thrive years into the future?”