Yesterday roughly 5,000 students from the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems joined forces to protest at the State Capitol in Sacramento, addressing ongoing budgetary concerns and other issues in public higher education. Organizations including UC Student Association, Cal State Student Association and the Student Senate for California Community Colleges were all in attendance at the event.

The Nexus held a Q&A with Associated Students President Sophia Armen, who attended the rally and lobbied legislators alongside other UCSB students.

So specifically, what were the goals of the rally?

“This event, specifically, was looking at actually the governor’s proposal for the budget, which essentially maintains the status quo of a sincerely underfunded University — which after years and years of severe cuts, has essentially made going to college unbelievably unaffordable and inaccessible for students.”

According to Armen, the increased funding provided by Prop 30 — which passed in November — is a short-term and unsustainable solution to the University’s ongoing fiscal woes.

“Even though there is a five percent increase to the operating budget of the UC [through] Prop 30, UCSA … essentially was saying that a Band-Aid solution like Prop 30 — which really just came from the people of California, not the politicians … is not enough, because the status quo of paying almost $15,000 per year to go to a public university, for many students — especially middle income students and working class students — is just impossible.”

How do you think Prop 30 has changed the state-level conversation regarding the funding of public higher education?

“What I think that’s really important is that we’re looking at a climate that is very different, in terms of student organizing … It was students who really made Prop 30 happen. UCSA, which is all of the UCs combined, registered over 51,000 people to vote and not only that, but our campus actually registered over 11,190 people to vote — the most in the entire nation…”

The passage of Prop 30 relied on the activism of student groups at both the campus and statewide levels, according to Armen, who said state lawmakers are now more aware of the political impact of student voters.

“We made Prop 30 happen, which, historically in California, is pretty difficult. So what we have now is, we have quite a lot of our representatives — our politicians up in Sacramento — really seeing the numbers that we brought out, and essentially seeing the importance of listening to a very large youth vote.”

But while students may hold a stronger voice in Sacramento, the state’s public higher education system continues to be underfunded, leaving the majority of its financial burden on students.

“The reality is the status quo is not acceptable. The status quo is unjust and there is a very specific campaign — on the part of not only the UC, but the state — of very real public divestment from our UC system, and then essentially a campaign of shifting the weight in the University of California of the burden of funding fully on the backs of students, which has never been a reality for public education in CA like it is right now … The importance of Prop 30, though, is this is not where we stop; this is actually where we begin because now is the time where we actually have very rare breathing room where, for the first time in my four years, we don’t have a fee increase up on the table. We can actually talk about not only freezing tuition, but actually rolling back the obscene tuition increases that have essentially not only been a campaign of the state, but of the Regents as well.”

What kind of future do you see for Cal Grants?

At the lobby conference, UCSA made efforts to improve funding for the Cal Grant B award.Armen said the student group co-sponsored AB 1365 — a piece of legislation authored by Phil Tang which seeks to increase these awards up to $1,550. According to Armen, Governor Jerry Brown decreased these awards to $1,473 in last year’s budget through a blue pencil veto.

We know you’re fighting for accessibility and affordability, as well as more need-based aid. How do you plan to implement these goals? What were short-term and long-term goals for this rally?

“The reality is essentially since 2001, there has been $900 million worth in cuts to the UC system, so what were calling on — in the state of California — is to actually provide the basic human right of education to its residents … This is not a crisis of funding, and I think that’s the most important thing to hit home. This is a crisis about priorities in the state of California. We actively, at UCSA, learned about where our money is going at the statewide level and it seems that we have an addiction of locking up the residents of California over educating them.”

According to Armen, the distribution of state funds does not adequately reflect the needs of California residents and consequently, has left university students like herself with mounds of debt to deal with upon graduation.

“I think the important thing to understand is how exactly we prioritize our society and what we prioritize in our society, especially when were hearing ever-more important discussions about the economy, about the job market — which for me, I am now entering with over $80,000 in debt, graduating in June.”

In regards to the short-term goals of student lobbying, Armen said it is essential for students to combat state initiatives like Governor Brown’s proposed unit cap — which would not allow students to take over 275 units without additional charge — as well as his ongoing push for a UC online education program. Armen said online education has been continually been pushed by the governor’s agenda, despite its clear lack of popularity with students.

“[With] this online education experiment — which…the UC Regents are being forced to invest tons of money into — we’re not seeing students overjoyed by taking online classes. As a matter of fact, the educational experience that you would receive is definitely disturbing for how much you’re paying. The reality is online education is really not a replacement of in-class instruction.”

 A version of this article appeared on page 1 of March 5th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.

Photo by Jonathan D. Rodgers of the Daily Nexus.