LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday morning, outside the gallery Hauser & Wirth, a group of protesters dressed in black silently stood with letters pinned to their chests. The students were from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), who bussed down from Valencia to deliver their letter to the CalArts Board of Directors and President Ravi S. Rajan, who were in the process of voting on the budget for the 2019–20 academic year behind the gallery’s doors. A recurring message, “you are nothing without us,” was flanked by a number: 50,850. That’s the tuition students will pay to attend the esteemed arts institution next year.
CalArts students are facing a 4.5% raise in tuition, and went to Hauser & Wirth in their final attempts to intervene with the board’s decision. (The meeting was held at Hauser & Wirth because co-President Iwan Wirth sits on the Board of Trustees.) On Monday, March 4, a school-wide email informed the student body that tuition would increase in fall of 2019, shooting past the $50,000 mark for the first time in CalArts history. While an increase in tuition follows an annual trend — online, CalArts claims that “tuition and fees are likely to increase between 2-4% each year” — this year’s proposed increase breaks that established barrier and the limits of what students can withstand.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, annual tuition fees have gone up by nearly $10,000 in the past five years. At the same time, CalArts says it has increased its scholarships by $5.2 million during that same time period. In a phone call with Hyperallergic, CalArts President Ravi S. Rajan said that tuition increases keep up with the escalating costs of salaries and wages, which outpace inflation rates. Overall, tuition accounts for roughly 75% of the institute’s budget.
Echo Rose, a BFA student in Music Composition, described the precarity of pursuing higher education when financial aid begins to chip away. “I know friends who are a year or semester out from graduating and had to drop out to try to save up the money to come back. Then tuition kept going up, but their scholarship didn’t, to a point where their 50% scholarship or 75% scholarship became a 25% scholarship.”
Andrew Siedenburg, an MFA student in Photography and Media who told Hyperallergic he was allowed to attend today’s meeting with 38 other CalArts students — one to match each board member — added, “I’m considering not coming back. In the meeting, the question was asked, ‘which students here are considering not attending next year,’ and maybe half the room raised their hands.”
In addition to budget concerns, the student protesters have been fighting for greater financial transparency, giving a broader voice to the student body, and a more active commitment to diversity. Eloy Neira, an international student from Peru receiving an MA in Critical Studies, has been able to make inroads as co-chair of the Student Union. “Historically, they don’t notify us [about tuition]. This is the first time tuition increase was announced prior to the summer when we get the bill,” Neira said.
Many students are also concerned that the tuition hike is a symptom of a greater diversity problem taking over CalArts. Outside the gallery, Sophia McDowell, a BFA student in Acting and one of the leaders of the student-run Black Arts Collective, stood beside a sign that read, “$50,850 is a threat to our diversity.”
“I think this raise of tuition is going to lower [diversity] even more, and that’s very unfortunate,” McDowell said. “We don’t have balance. It’s predominantly white people they admit. That makes us have to work twice as hard to represent our group.” As of 2017, only 4% of the school is African American, though 51% of the student body identifies as a person of color.
Rose also points out that the high tuition prohibits independent students from attending school, even if they’re willing to take on the financial burden. To take out the high loans required to attend CalArts, most students need a parental guardian to co-sign their loans.
“For students whose identities might run against the politics of their family, or for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is basically no hope of being here even if they’re willing to take out the debt,” Rose said.
During today’s Board of Trustees meeting, the 39 students were allowed to attend the closed-door meeting for 10 minutes. They used their time to collectively read their letter to the Board, and the administration seemed to listen with an open mind. While the meeting was supposed to conclude with a vote to finalize the 2019-20 budget, the Chairman of the Board, Tim Disney, emerged from Hauser & Wirth with unexpected news.
“We knew we had to approve of the budget as it existed with the tuition hike, but we knew also that we had to do something substantive to respond to the issues that you brought in front of us,” Disney said. “In the room, we drafted a set of resolutions to do the best we could in addressing these issues. These were approved by the board, along with the budget and the tuition increase.”
In the five-point resolution, the board promises more transparent communication, to include more faculty, staff, and student voices in their decision making process, immediate reevaluation of financial aid packages for continuing students who demonstrate the most need, and future commitment to analyzing and improving the distribution of financial aid and need for increased tuition. However, even with these efforts, students will still have to find ways to pay the annual $50,850 tuition, and the board can’t guarantee it won’t rise again in fall of 2020.
On the phone with Hyperallergic, Rajan admitted that relying on students to fund the institute’s overhead is unsustainable. “Higher education has followed a system for many years and we’re at a breaking point. This is the higher education crisis we’re hearing about.”
Rajan, who was appointed President in June 2017, admires the students’ respectful protests and looks forward to fostering a new relationship with the study body. “I’m committed to the radical transparency that would be required to create a dialogue with the students, and I’m excited for that,” he said.
While optimistic about the progress students have made with the CalArts administration, Neira is still wary about the future of higher education. “Student precarity has been normalized not just at CalArts, but also the whole country,” he said, referring to the mounting student debt nationwide. “We talked about how CalArts says it is radical in how it’s a different school, but still it’s following the same status quo.”
Updates: A previous version of this article stated that financial aid and scholarships remained stagnant for students. While this is true for current students, the budget for scholarships at CalArts overall increased. This has been updated. We have also updated the article to include CalArts’ statistics on diversity to contextualize a student’s comment.