UC Santa Cruz graduate student Rory Willats opened his MyUCSC billing portal midway into fall quarter and received a shock — he owed the university $5,800 he didn’t have. 

With that charge on his account, Willats would not be considered a student by the university come winter quarter. He spent multiple months appealing for the charge to be removed. 

“It’s kind of dominated [my life]. I’m behind on my thesis work, I’ve been going to classes that I’m not enrolled in,” said Willats, a second-year in the MFA program in Digital Arts and New Media. “Getting myself out is going to be hard.” 

The charge was for a quarter’s worth of Non-Resident Supplemental Tuition (NRST). NRST is a charge applied to all students who aren’t California residents. To avoid paying NRST, out-of-state students like Willats petition to establish California residency through the UCSC Registrar’s residency staff. 

According to the UC Office of the President, students must submit an application that proves their “physical presence” in the state for at least one year, as well as their “intent” to “make California [their] home permanently.” Students may be asked to provide credit card statements, utility bills, voter registration, and even medical documents as evidence. 

If their initial application is denied, students must appeal to the Registrar’s residency team by providing additional evidence of their California residency. Unless their appeal is approved, students are responsible for paying NRST. 

By fall 2022, Willats had already lived in California for the first year of his MFA program, teaching and attending in- person classes at UCSC. But, when he received notice that his initial residency application had been denied, he realized the petition process was not as straightforward as expected. Willats is not alone. Many other students have had poor experiences with the residency petition process. 

NRST has garnered enough controversy that its removal was one of UAW 2865’s original demands in last quarter’s strike. Graduate advisors from multiple departments told City On a Hill Press that the process has been difficult for many of their students. 

Kristen Nelson, a PhD candidate in UCSC’s literature department, said that the residency process is a “known issue” within her department. 

“Across the board, what I’m hearing from other students is there needs to be clearer communication about what [the] parameters are ahead of time,” Nelson said. 

Wesley Viebahn, another second-year literature PhD candidate, said that the first time she clearly remembers being told she needed to file a residency petition was in September of her second year. 

“I didn’t get any official communication from the school. I got an informal email from my department,” Viebahn said. 

Viebahn’s PhD application included a question about where she lived, but she didn’t understand that she was supposed to take any action at that point.

Students can enroll in classes without a full understanding of NRST, and then end up locked into debt if their residency petition is denied. 

“Partway through the term, they let me know my application hadn’t been accepted, at which point, [I had] already begun classes, so I owe[d] them this money,” Willats said. 

One student source, who asked not to be identified, said that they had to lie in their residency application. They became aware of the deadline too late to move in time to meet the one-year physical presence requirement. 

Communication wasn’t the only barrier students faced. They also described a system that privileged those with more financial resources. 

Willats’ original application was denied in part because he couldn’t provide evidence of a stable in-state address, he said. At the time, Willats was houseless. In fact, he was living in a motel subsidized by UCSC. 

“I’m jumping through hoops to live here, and because I’m jumping through those hoops, the school is saying, ‘Well, are you sure you live here?’” Willats said. “My housing insecurity is caused by [the university], and now they’re going to leverage that against me.” 

Nelson said that her initial application was challenged because the credit card statements she provided didn’t include enough grocery purchases in California. 

“One of the challenges was that I hadn’t spent enough money at grocery stores to prove that I was a California resident,” Nelson said. “I responded by saying that we earn very little money as graduate students here [at UCSC].” 

Instead of buying groceries, Nelson was utilizing the free markets on campus provided by Slug Support and Basic Needs. She sent in Venmo receipts for those purchases, but that wasn’t enough to appeal the challenge. Nelson’s appeal eventually succeeded with the support of her department. 

“I had been enrolled in classes, I was teaching classes, and I lived in university housing,” Nelson said. “It was confusing that that wasn’t enough, that they had to do this rigorous examination of my financial records.” 

Viebahn shared the evidence that got her first application approved. The list of documents she provided included things like vehicle registration, credit card purchases in California, plane tickets to California, and a signed lease. All of these documents are tied to large, in-state expenses. 

Willats and Nelson both felt pressured to pay the NRST fee, even though they were confident that they should qualify for residency. 

Nelson shared an email from the residency team with City on a Hill Press. In the email, a staff member advised Nelson to pay the NRST to “avoid further late fees” while she appealed the challenge. The staff member assured Nelson that her account would be adjusted if the appeal was approved. 

Willats said he considered dropping out or picking up another job to cover the costs of his rent and his debt. Because his appeal hadn’t been approved by the beginning of winter 2023, he was taking classes that he wasn’t technically enrolled in. 

Willats had to enroll in his winter classes past the enrollment deadline. He had to pay the university $10 per class to petition to enroll. All of our sources agreed that something about the process needs to change. 

“With enough of these narratives that are collected from graduate students […] I really hope there can be a shift in the system to make it more accessible,” Nelson said. “Santa Cruz, in particular, is an expensive place to live. Adding this threat of an additional financial burden is a challenge that can be avoided with clear communication from the outset.” 

The registrar’s residency team was unable to comment by the time of publication.