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Budget Cuts Devastate California Higher Education

Sign in front of San Diego State University building that reads "San Diego State University."
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Above: Sign in front of San Diego State University building that reads "San Diego State University."

— When California college students return to campus this fall, they'll find crowded classrooms, less access to faculty and counselors, fewer campus services and more difficulty getting classes they need to graduate - all while paying higher fees.

The state's financial crisis is battering its world-renowned system of higher education, reducing college opportunities for residents and threatening California's economic recovery.

Faced with steep declines in tax revenue, states are reducing funding to public colleges and universities across the country. That could hamper the nation's rebound from a deep recession and undermine President Barack Obama's goal of making the U.S. the world leader in college graduates by 2020, experts say.

"It's going to be harder for me to continue to be in school," said Nancy Santana, 25, a single mother who attends San Diego's Miramar College and worries her financial aid will be reduced. "I may be forced to cut school and find a job without a degree."

No state is cutting more deeply than California, which has more than 3 million students attending college.

To close its massive budget deficit, the state has slashed funding to its 110 community colleges, the 23-campus California State University and the 10-campus University of California, one of the nation's leading research institutions.

The schools have responded by boosting fees, turning away record numbers of students, expanding class sizes, eliminating programs, laying off staff, and furloughing professors and other employees.

"The total magnitude of the cuts imposed in California is unprecedented," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "In the 30 years I've been watching higher education policy, I've never seen a state implement budget cuts of this size and scope."

California's future is at risk if fewer people earn college degrees, laid-off workers fail to develop the skills employers demand, and universities lose their ability to recruit and retain top researchers, experts say.

An April study by the Public Policy Institute of California projected the state would face a shortage of nearly 1 million college-educated workers by 2025 and warned that funding cuts would worsen the skills gap.

"We'll see a decline in the number of college graduates when the economy demands more," said Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

For decades, other states and countries have looked to California's three-tiered system of higher education as a model for access, affordability and academic excellence. Its 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education opened college to all residents and helped make the state an engine of economic growth and technological innovation.

But the steep economic downturn has forced California to make drastic cuts to education, health care and social services to close a $60 billion budget deficit, the largest in state history.

UC and CSU will receive 20 percent less state funding this year than they did two years ago.

"It's a really dramatic shift to what was once one of the most progressive higher education systems in the world," said John Aubrey Douglass, a higher education expert at UC Berkeley. "It takes a long time to build these institutions, but they can be ripped apart very quickly, and then it's really hard for them to recover."

The UC system, which has about 220,000 students, is raising student fees by 9 percent, reducing freshman enrollment by 6 percent and cutting at least $300 million from the budgets of its 10 campuses.

UC is also forcing most of its 180,000 employees to take furloughs and pay cuts of up to 10 percent, which officials say will make it harder to stop competing universities from poaching academic stars.

Mark Krumholz, a leading astronomer at UC Santa Cruz, recently co-wrote a letter, signed by more than 300 top UC scientists, warning state lawmakers that budget cuts could damage the future of science and technology in California.

"I don't want to leave, but I don't want to be the last man on a sinking ship," said Krumholz, who wondered whether he should accept a higher paying job at another university.

CSU, the nation's largest four-year university system with 450,000 students, plans to cut enrollment by 40,000 over the next two years. Nearly all 47,000 employees have agreed to take furloughs two days per month, and fees for in-state undergraduates will rise 32 percent to $4,827 a year.

CSU officials say the fees are relatively low and the increase will be offset by expanded financial aid, but advocates say many low-income students may be unable to attend.

"The fee increase is going to be tough for me and other students because it's hard for students to get jobs," said Chris Morales, a junior at CSU San Marcos who is the first in his family to attend college. "My mother doesn't make enough money to pay for my college education. She has three other children."

California's community colleges will receive almost 6 percent less state funding than last year, even as campuses struggle to accommodate a surge of military veterans and newly unemployed workers seeking training for new jobs.

The colleges are raising their fees by 30 percent, shrinking teaching staffs and reducing class schedules.

The Los Angeles Community College District canceled summer sessions at its nine campuses, and the San Diego Community College District cut about 800 of its 10,000 classes last year.

Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, said he expects the community college system, which had about 2.7 million students last year, to enroll 250,000 fewer students this year.

"There are more Californians that need community college than ever, and we're not going to be able to meet that need," Lay said.

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