Tuition Hikes and Protests in the 1990’s

The 1990’s when I was a student was an era of increases in tuition, and resistance to it, at many American campuses. Here is an account of ones that happened when I started my higher education, and the broader analysis of how it relates to many structural reasons for local changes.

Back in spring 1995 there was protests at UNM against tuition hikes by student organizers. They called themselves ACT, or Action Coalition on Tuition. Since the Board of Regents is given the power to raise tuition, the regents were made a target. According to the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education Policy on Tuition/Formula Tuition Credits, “The Governing Boards of New Mexico’s public postsecondary institutions are, by Statute, designated the responsibility for setting tuition and fee charges at their respective institutions.” After a march and rally, related to a protest against the Republican Contract With America, some of them camped out in front of the Scholes Hall administration building for a few days, protesting a 6 percent tuition hike.

Also in 1995, at a supposed town hall meeting held by UNM president Peck in Santa Fe, former governor Toney Anaya advocated the abolition of tuition at UNM. Anaya said that crime and underemployment could be alleviated by opening New Mexico’s colleges and universities to more students, and advocated tuition be “reduced, frozen and then ultimately done away with.” In response, Peck said that contributions from the state, making up 24 percent of the university’s operating budget at $160 million, would have to double its contributions to $300 million to make up for the 20 percent of the budget that comes from tuition, or else lower tuition would mean less programs for students. That year, the Regents finance and facilities committee voted to recommend a 6 percent tuition and fee increase for 1995-1996, and 3 percent average salary increase for faculty. The state funding for higher education increased 4.3 percent that year. (2).

The next year in 1996 that spring there was another protest against tuition hikes at UNM. It was mainly organized by the student group the Progressive Student Alliance. Before that they did much organizing, having meetings, town halls, and other actions in a semester long campaign. Echoing Anaya above, two members went to the state legislature while it was in session and dropped a banner advocating for tuition free universities. The organizing helped the turnout at the protest during the vote by the regents on the tuition hike, along with an incident the night before. Members of the PSA set up a shanty town as part of their protest, and UNM police arrested two members that night. The outrage around these arrests, one of a prominent organizer, likely sparked the high turnout for this protest, a little more than 100 students. UNM is not known as an activist campus, and it was felt that the issue of tuition increases would be able to organize students on their own self interest. The day of the tuition vote by the regents and the resulting protest led to the arrest of 14 other students and community members, bringing 16 total arrests for protesting tuition hikes through those two days. Some of the community members included candidates for the Green Party of New Mexico, Bob Anderson and Sam Hitt. The tuition hike went up, much dialogue within the campus community and through the media happened, but the aftermath was with many of the organizers feeling burned out due to the lack of accomplishable goals.

There was another protest held by the Progressive Student Alliance in 1997, but less organizing before hand. A main demand of the PSA was to bring up the undemocratic means of this tuition hike, so they asked for the vote by the Regents to be held in a larger room so that more students could attend and voice their opinions. The regents rejected that demand. The numbers at the tuition protest were smaller, and everyone was able to fit into that room at Scholes Hall where the vote happened, and tuition was once again raised. Each year after this had either more sporadic protests or none at all. But the consistent each year was the hike in tuition and fees.

There were many protests in the 1990’s on campuses around the United States against tuition hikes. It was a result of the financial impact students felt from these increases. These increases were consistent nationally across the board, as many schools felt the burden from this financial crisis.

How Did We Get Here? Universities were Democratized

After World War II, American public policy has aimed to make higher education accessible for more of its citizens, and it had succeeded. Higher education has grown to be a larger part of the economy overall. By 1997, two-thirds of high school graduates went on to college, 80 percent of them going to public universities. A poll that year found 75 percent agreed on the question that college is needed to get ahead in life, up from 49 percent in 1978 (3). Back in 1947 spending on higher education was at $2.4 billion, or less than 1 percent of the economy. In 1997 spending was at $180 billion, 3 percent of the economy. It was clear that higher education was a growing need for people. (4) With this came more enrollments, more buildings, more faculty, and so forth. More costs.

The era of Reaganomics also led to austerity in the area of higher education. In the 1970’s college prices stayed within the rate of inflation, but starting in the 1980’s in the U.S. there were dramatic increases in the amount of tuition and fees students paid. Tuition and fees rose at 2 to 3 times the Consumer Price Index.(5).

Revenue Cuts Made Up by Tuition

Most funding of higher education is done on the state level, and during this time states began dealing with the rising costs of higher education. State spending on higher education went from an average of 14 percent of state budgets in 1990 to 12.5 percent in 1994.

In 1980-1981, state revenues made up 46 percent of public college and university budgets. This dropped to 36 percent by 1994-1995. Federal revenue also dropped for public institutions during this time, from 13 percent to 11 percent in this period. For private institutions, state funding remained at 2 percent, but federal funding dropped from 19 percent of their budgets to 14 percent.

To make up for this loss of funding, schools started raising tuition. Tuition and fees for public colleges and universities went from an average of $1,442 in 1980-81 to $2,814 by 1994-95, a 95 percent increase. For private schools, it went from an average of $6,482 to $11, 545 in this same period, a 78 percent increase (7).

Another study showed that in a 10 year period ending 1998-99, adjusting for inflation, the average tuition and fees at public colleges rose 53 percent, and 35 percent at private colleges.

Financial Aid

Along with increased tuition, there was a change in financial aid. The best known federal program for higher education is the Pell Grant, and it faced cuts too.

The value of a Pell Grant in 1975 was $4,100, and in 1999 it was $3,125. In the 1976-77 period the average Pell Grant covered 36 percent of the costs of a public 4 year college, and 19 percent of the costs of a private 4 year college. By 1996-97 it covered 22 percent of the costs of a public college, and 9 percent of the cost of a private college.

In this same period, a maximum Pell grant went from covering 72 percent of costs to 34 percent of costs at a public college, and for private colleges from 35 percent to 13 percent. (8).

Also, financial aid became less of grants and more of loans, which have to be paid back. In 1980-81 loans made up 40 percent of financial aid, the rest in the form of grants. In 1997-98 this was reversed, for loans now made up 60 percent of financial aid, with grants the rest. That period financial aid was at $60 billion, 6 percent above the year before. A lot more money going in, and a lot more burden on students and their parents as costs kept increasing.

The class nature of this aid is evident. Grants mainly help low-income students and families, and loans help out middle class and wealthier students and families. Lobbying is often directed at loans rather than grants on the federal level, because of their constituencies. Also, wealthier students are receiving financial aid too. 14 percent of students from families with incomes of $100,000 or more received financial aid in 1995-96. For private schools that year, 45 percent of student received financial aid.(9).

With funding decreasing, there was also an increase of merit-based aid. Schools are also in competition for students, and merit-based aid is used to attract top students. Need-based aid was still given the most, going from $2.2 billion in 1996-97 to $2.3 billion 1997-98, a 5 percent increase. But merit-based aid went from $273 million to $329 million, a 21 percent increase (10)

And this brings us back to New Mexico, where they implemented a merit-based aid program in the form of the Lottery Scholarship.

A Temporary Solution to Access, the Lottery Scholarship

The Lottery Scholarship was implemented after a state lottery was formed, with 60 percent of the revenue going to school construction and 40 percent going to scholarships to college students. New Mexico was one of eight states that offered this merit-based program, where one had to keep a C average to keep it, no matter ones income. The dream of a tuition free university was almost met, but this was paid through a lottery, essentially a tax on low-income people.

The lottery Scholarship program had much success, for in 1998-99 period, 8,000 students got the grant throughout New Mexico schools. This increased to 12,000 in 1999-00, and was expected to increase to 16,000 by 2000-01. Yet the state had a crisis in that for 2000-01 the scholarships would be $21.6 million, and only 16 million was available. There was also decreased revenues, as there was other gambling competition from Native American casinos (which was implemented in the 90’s also, though not without some conflicts between the state and the tribes). Legislators found a solution, and the lottery scholarship was saved in March 2000 by a bill they passed. It increased the revenue by splitting the payments for scholarships and construction to 50/50, and had universities give their own financial aid before awarding the lottery scholarship to students. (11)

With the free tuition given, the protests against tuition died down, and tuition started to go up a lot more.


In 2000 the regents approved a 15 percent tuition increase, bringing tuition to $2,794 per year. This was the largest increase in 30 years, putting an extra $365 onto the tuition and fees student had to pay for. The regents and others attempted to blame the state legislature for not fully funding the university (12).

The next year, 2001, there was another tuition increase, of 8.3 percent, and that year some students went and protested. The apathy of the tuition protest did not mean that students were not feeling the pinch, and enough was enough. The Daily Lobo reported 50 students voicing against the hikes (13). Still a larger number than the room in Scholes Hall that the Regents vote on tuition hikes was held, with only 20 seats available, the rest having to wait outside. Part of this protest had the students sitting at the seats of the Regents table before the vote, when they were not there, temporarily occupying them, making a symbolic point on the power structure of the university.

Tuition again went up, but the struggle continued.

From 1997 to 2001 tuition and fees went up 40 percent at UNM. The continuing cycle of tuition hikes continued elsewhere, and with them more protests, with most people not knowing about them. I hope some of the participants tell those stories someday. At UNM, a small part of the student body participated in some event or action against the tuition hike. Even though these efforts failed, it was significant that some students resisted these tuition hikes as a response to these austerity measures imposed by students. But it remains that this country has put an individualistic sentiment on the people here, where those increases are done on an individual level, getting a second job, taking out more loans, etc.

Articles by Mary Beth Marklein in USA Today in 2002 documented these increases (14). Overall, 80 percent of college students enroll in public institutions. 40 percent of the nation’s 15 million students are in a public 4 year institution. The increasing enrollments in colleges, mainly from low-income and non-white students, came at a time of decreased appropriations and rising costs. In the 1988-1989 school year, according to a study of the budgets of state schools by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in 2001, universities on average received an average of 39.9 percent of its budget from state appropriations and 14.7 percent from tuition. In 1998-1999 this changed to 31.5 percent from state appropriations, and 18.4 percent from tuition. State appropriations increased 13 percent since 1980 to 2000, but tuition increased 107 percent in the same period.

This was a burden for many families without much disposable income. In 1980 tuition at a 4-year institution made up 13 percent of low-income family’s income. This increased to 25 percent in 2000. For 2-year colleges, tuition made up 6 percent of low-income family’s income in 1980, then 12 percent in 2000.

Financial aid was covering less at the same time. In 1986 a Pell Grant covered an average of 98 percent of tuition at a 4-year college. In 1999 it covered 57 percent. State grant aid went from covering 75 percent of tuition in 1986 to 64 percent of tuition.

At the same time borrowing increased. The average cumulative debt of college seniors in the lowest income group in 1989 was $7,629. It increased to $12,888 in 1999.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a different attitude about tuition, where it is at no cost to students. In 1997, the British government proposed tuition for students for the first time. Even by a small amount, of the equivalent of $1,600 a year, it was against the principles they held dear that were under attack by New Labour’s Tony Blair. Liz Llewellyn of the National Union of Students said “We’ve always been told that if you choose to go on with your education, the state should pay, because you’ll give so much back to the state by getting a better job and paying more in taxes.” There is a more social obligation to higher education there, but they have been facing increases in enrollment also, from 1 in 20 young people enrolling in higher education in the 1960’s to 1 in 3 in 1997, and financial aid has not kept pace. (15)

The increasing costs put upon students is also changing cultural norms within. For example, law students are being deterred from pursuing public service jobs due to their high student loan debt (16). Two-thirds of law students in 2002 would now consider a job in public interest or government services because of the low salaries, which do not keep pace with private sector salaries. Since 1991 median starting salaries for private practice lawyers jumped 80 percent from $50,000 to $90,000, while government and public interest lawyers salaries only increased 37 percent. In-state school tuition rose 140 percent in the 1990, and 76 percent at private law schools. 97 percent of law students borrowed money, and 58 percent had debts from $55,000 to $105,000.

The increasing debt burden has led to a situation where parents are still paying off their loans at the same time starting to pay for their children’s own education. Also they are going back to school too. The number of students 35 and older increased from 823,000 in 1970 to 2.8 mullion in 1996, more than tripling (17). A higher education consultant says that if the federal government through SLM Holding Corp, or Sallie Mae, limited borrowing by setting tighter rules for the loans, schools would have to control their rising costs. But no one is willing to take these risks. He also says that these debt burdens will also change behaviors, such as postponing marriages, child bearing, etc., because of the debts.

To get more of the burden off students themselves in the costs of higher education, there needs to be a more social obligation here too in the United States toward higher education. Students have to organize as students against these measures. One area we campaigned on was the power of the Board of Regents. To make them from appointed positions to democratically elected positions. Not that there is much faith in the electoral system, but it was felt that an elected board would lessen the business influences of the current regents now. But it is about power, not only by knowing how the university power structure is but of building student power, and knowing how to use it.


  1.  “New Mexico Commission on Higher Education Policy on Tuition/Formula Tuition Credits.” January 21, 1999. (accessed August 11, 2001).

2. Propp, Wren. “Abolish Tuition, UNM Urged.” Albuquerque Journal. March 22, 1995. Journal North Section, p. 6.

3. Aronson, Karen W. “Rationing Higher Education: Why College Isn’t For Everyone.” New York Times. August 31, 1997.

4. Bronner, Ethan. “College Tuition Up 4 Percent, Outpacing Inflation.” New York Times. October 8, 1998.

5. Honan, William. “Growing Gap Is Found in College Affordability and Grants to Needy Students.” New York Times. November 18, 1998.

6. Honan, William. “Some Colleges are Trimming Tuition Costs.” New York Times. February 3, 1999.

7. Blair, Julie. “Higher Tuitions Aren’t Inevitable, Report Contends.” Education Week. February 17, 1999. (accessed June 25, 2000).

8. Honan, op. cit., November 18, 1998.

9. Sorkin, Andrew Ross. “Financial Aid for the Bourgeoisie.” New York Times. November 7, 1999.; Delafuente, Charles. “Beating the Tuition Blues and Earning Some Tax Breaks.” New York Times. February 27, 2000.

10. Blair, Julie. “More College Aid Going to Top Students.” Education Week. February 1, 1999. (accessed June 25, 2000)

11. Selingo, Jeffrey. “In New Mexico, Too Many Scholarships, Too Few Lottery Funds.” Chronicle of Higher Education. November 5, 1999. Pg. A43. ; Selingo, Jeffrey. “New Mexico Acts to Save Scholarship Program.” Chronicle of Higher Education. March 10, 2000. Pg. A37.

12. Zoretich, Frank. “UNM Tuition Increase Jumps from 9.9% to 15%.” Albuquerque Tribune. April 12, 2000. Pg. A1.; Zoretich, Frank. “Some Blame Tuition Increase on Poor Lobbying Effort By UNM.” Albuquerque Tribune. April 13, 2000. Pg. A4.; Dano, Mike. “U. New Mexico Raises Tuition 15 Percent.” Daily Lobo. April 12, 2000.

13. Uyttebrouck, Olivier. “UNM Tuition Going Up.” Albuqerque Journal. April 11, 2001. Pg. C1.

14. Marklein, Mary Beth. “College Tuition Rising Faster Than the Average Income.” USA Today. May 1, 2002. (accessed May 11, 2002); Marklein. “Public Universities Raise Tuition, Fees – And Ire.” USA Today. August 8, 2002. Pg. A1.

15. Lyall, Sarah. “For First Time, British Students Face Tuition.” New York Times. July 24, 1997.

16. Grimaldi, James V. “In-debt Lawyers Want Big Salaries.” Washington Post. December 8, 2002. (reprinted in Albuquerque Journal, p. I1, December 8, 2002.)

17.  Schembari, James. “Debt-The Next Generation.” New York Times. August 22, 1999. Business Section.


About elloborojo

Okay, as the subtitle states, this is a notebook from what I call a New Mexico diaspora (look up diaspora if you are asking). I was a former resident of New Mexico, now living elsewhere, but New Mexico is still my homeland. To get more in touch with your homeland one must be away from it. This is my attempt to understand it. I was a former anti-militarism activist in the Albuquerque area. Still believe that United Snakes militarism is the greatest threat to the world, as do the majority of the worlds population. Uncovered much information about the ties in New Mexico, but never processed it all. This blog is an attempt to do that. Also hope it may come of use to others with similar interests.
This entry was posted in Richard Peck, Universities, University of New Mexico. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tuition Hikes and Protests in the 1990’s

  1. Pingback: The Problems and Politics of Governance in State Universities: The Land Grant Colleges | El Lobo Rojo: Notes From A New Mexico Diaspora

  2. G. Aragon-Fulton says:

    I commend you for you efforts to remind people of the need to remember that students can organize to resist the unnecessary and far too frequent increases in tuition at public universities. However, your issue would have been better served by a review of earlier efforts to call the publics attention to this same issue by those who occupied the administration building in the spring of 1989 for about a week. After the state legislature and its education committee had approved a budget that would meet an agreed upon level of funding from the state without the need for an increase in tuition which UNM claimed was necessary ; suddenly a second university budget appeared with an adjustment that seemed to require a resurrected tuition increase. The university administration claimed this was necessary to provide its teaching staff with necessary raises. Upon a closer review, some disturbing details came to light. For one, the president of UNM had hired the daughter of its paid lobbyist as his administrative assistant with a significantly larger salary than her predecessor and with a travel budget larger than even that of the university president. Another odd detail was that, thought this president chose not to occupy the on campus residence that was provided to previous holders of his office, he had utilized university employees to perform work on his private residence at the public’s expense. Within a year, it seems that the Athletic Director may have come under scrutiny for irregularities in the sports bugets.
    I was originally looking for information about the 1989 events when I came across this blog article.
    At that point I had briefly worked for Senator Robinson of Albuquerque who was on one of the education commitees during that winter’s 90 day legislative session that gave more public funds to UNM. I am pretty sure that I was the person that called the attention of the students to the double dealing going on. After assurances that the univ wouldn’t raise tuition , a new budget was drawn up & they asked for the raise anyway.

    Whli9n ìt was nearly thirty years ago, forgive me if I may have s details wrong.

    • elloborojo says:

      Thank you for your observations from that time. Corruption at UNM has been around for a long time and still is, as recent events attest. I only had research from my time there, and my present position prevents me from doing more thorough research from before then. I do welcome others observations about these issues, especially from other times.

  3. G. Aragon-Fulton says:

    Appreciated the response.
    Near the end of the April 1989 event, in response to the tuition hike, other news made our efforts pale in comparison- the Tiananmen Square protest and the response to it by Chinese troops. The image of the individual facing down the tank became indelible for most people who saw the film footage.
    It is unfortunate that public universities have become co-opted by the corporate mentality and that this has caused so much unservicable debt. Just yesterday NPR reported that many of today’s students are experiencing literal hunger because of the high costs of tuition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s