Sonoma State's debt burden rises

  • A new student center is in the process of being built, Friday March 2, 2012 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Ruben Armi?na went before state university trustees in the Glenn S. Dumke Auditorium in Long Beach last November and made a request that has become familiar to the CSU board over the past decade.

The Sonoma State University president asked for financing approval for a campus building project, this time for a $60.5 million student center.

His request was granted and SSU shot upward on the list of CSU campuses that are heavily in debt.

Since 2000, as new buildings including the Green Music Center and 21 student apartment buildings in complexes named for wine varietals sprouted on its campus, SSU's debt has soared to $223 million.

SSU, with just over 2 percent of the system's 347,000 undergraduate students, accounts for 6.75 percent of CSU's $3.3billion revenue bond debt. With 7,381 students, it is the 16th-largest of CSU's 23 campuses, but it is sixth in overall debt burden.

Including the student center, which students approved in an election last April and is now being built, SSU's debt has grown 355 percent since 2000, when it owed $49 million.

Students pay for the debt — through fees for housing and other campus services. Starting this year, with $300 in new annual fees for the student center, SSU students pay the fourth-highest package of annual tuition and fees in the CSU system, $6,862.

The debt load has grown through a calculated strategy to turn what was a commuter campus of older students 15 years ago into a residential campus where 3,100 students live. This year, 1,779 of SSU students, or 24 percent, are freshmen, compared to 11 percent in 1996.

"This institution would not be here today if not for the fact that we went into debt to build housing," Armi?na said.

"The local area does not produce enough college students to support the university. We needed to attract students from other parts of the state and these students need housing," he said.

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