Cuts for California’s Colleges

Public higher education’s budget crisis leaves students looking for alternatives

K-12 educators across the state drew a sigh of relief when California Governor Jerry Brown revealed a plan to protect their funding in the Proposed Budget Summary for the coming fiscal year. Although the upcoming round of budget cuts won’t hurt our youngsters, members of the state’s higher education system face a darker fate. Budget cuts to higher education will undoubtedly hurt California’s public universities. In Claremont, these pains may bring more Californian students to the 5Cs.

The deal to leave primary and secondary education funding untouched gave the K-12 sector of the Department of Education a much needed break from cuts to its budget over the past five years. In the past three years California’s K-12 public school system has seen more than $18 billion in cuts and lost over 30,000 educators to layoffs. These are losses that Governor Brown says cannot be continued without unmanageable sacrifices.

The drawback of this is that the state’s public higher education system will suffer the losses. Of the overall $12.5 billion Governor Brown plans to cut from the statewide budget, $2.2 billion will be cut from the University of California (UC), California State University (CSU), and California Community College (CCC) systems as well as from the California Student Aid and California Postsecondary Education Commissions.

According to the Proposed Budget Summary, these cuts will leave the state’s system of higher education with a total budget of $22 billion, of which $11.7 billion will go into the General Fund and Proposition 98 sources for all major sectors. That means a 1.9 percent overall decrease and a 12.8 percent decrease for General Fund and Proposition 98‐related sources from the 2010‐11 Budget Act.

In addition to program downsizing and scheduling chaos, the cuts also mean a continuation of tuition hikes for student. CSU and UC students have seen triple-digit fee increases since Governor Schwarzenegger held office and are facing both mid-year and annual increases for the upcoming year. Additionally, if the current budget plan remains unchanged, CCC students will see a fee increase from $26 to $36 per credit hour. Although this total cost seems low when compared with other state public education fees, it becomes much more substantial when taken into context of the history of the system’s funding. In the 2003-04 academic year CCC fees were raised from $11 to $18, and from $18 to $26 in 2004-05. These increases coincided with a cut of more than 12,000 academic courses.

The current 2011-12 state budget proposal assumes that California voters will approve tax increases later this year that will make minimal cuts a possibility. If tax increases do not pass, the budget will have to be altered to more closely fit the reality of the state’s financial standing, meaning further cuts to education.

Within the Department, money is most tight in undergraduate programs. Although no specific relationship exists between department size and available funding, the fact that cuts are not decreasing in frequency means continuously greater losses for public higher education across the board.

The biggest problems include course elimination, increased class size, and faculty downsizing. According to Sam Nichols, a full-time lecturer in the UC Davis Department of Music, such changes do not go unnoticed. Nichols says, “Class sizes are expanding; we have 30-40 students squeezed into our second year music theory class, and it’s a tight fit. And we’re not really able to offer a second section [of introductory music theory, a core class of the music degree].”

Nichols and his fellow faculty members have also noticed a general increase in difficulty of class scheduling due in part to terminated courses in all departments. Scheduling struggles have become especially problematic for students seeking multiple degrees.

“[There is] a lack of flexibility in general with all of the departments on campus right now,” says Nichols. “If a student’s other major is cutting back on how many sections of a given class [the department] can offer, that impacts the student’s entire schedule. It makes it tougher on the students.”

Differentiating the causes of such issues is sometimes difficult given the multitude of factors that go into the success of any given academic program. “It’s unclear whether the growth is due to positive factors, such as more students being interested in the department, or not. And at least part of the reason [for program cutbacks] has to do with our space limitations,” says Nichols. “But these issues are linked to the budget crisis. Our new building, which was supposed to go up in 2009-10, is on hold until the money situation is better.”

Public schools are also having trouble with faculty retention. As courses become scarce and cramped, the visiting and part-time professors who teach them cannot always be paid enough to stick around. Those who do remain long enough to see retirement from their respective institutions sometimes see a whole new definition of retirement.

“Academic jobs in general are more scarce. If a faculty member retires, his or her position may very well also go away,” says Nichols. “I can think of a few recent examples of ‘retired’ faculty members agreeing to continue to carry a load that’s very nearly full-time.”

Fortunately, graduate programs seem to be avoiding a similar fate as they receive ample scholarship money to stay afloat.

“Funding for graduate students has not been cut back in the wake of the budget crisis. This is immensely important, because the health of graduate programs is in many respects a sign of the future state of scholarship, particularly in the humanities,” says Eric Naiman, head of graduate studies in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley. “This year we had our strongest pool of graduate applicants in at least a decade, and I’m glad we will be able to support the students we’ve admitted.”

With the protection that comes along with private funding, students at the Claremont Colleges may automatically assume that such cuts are of a whole separate world. While it is true that our financial safety avoids the highs and lows of the state economy, there is a great likelihood that the problems in California’s public higher education system will impact Claremont admissions. As each of the 5-Cs boasts a student body composed largely of in-state residents – ranging from 32 percent at Pomona to 39 percent at Pitzer for the incoming freshman classes– it is reasonable to wonder if these numbers will increase as more and more Californians choose to go private while remaining local.

The answer is not entirely clear-cut. Claremont admissions are becoming increasingly competitive, and it can be said that this may be partially attributed to state education budget cuts driving in-state students to private schools.

CMC Dean of Admission Richard Vos says the number of California students on campus has jumped in the past year. Though the recent rate of increase of California and non-California applications has been roughly equal, the in-state yield rate has seen a noticeable increase.

“For California admits in 2009, the yield on offers of admission was 38 percent. That year’s freshman class was 34 percent from California,” says Vos. This was a precise reflection of numbers from past years. “But for the Californian admits in 2010 the yield on offers of admission shot up to 48 percent. This past fall’s freshman class was 40 percent from California. We can definitely attribute the big increase in the yield and number of enrolling California students…to the state’s budget woes and all the negative attention the media gave to the plight of the UC system during the 2009-2010 academic year,” says Vos.

This is only a small fraction of a larger story. CMC has also seen an increase in the number of financial aid applicants. In light of the recent economic downfall that put many college-bound students in a tight spot, this was to be expected.

“Because of the downturn in the economy that began in October of 2008 we have seen a few more students in need of financial aid at CMC,” says Vos. This is not related to budget cuts and in no way poses a threat to the school’s availability of financial aid money. Aside from the money that the school provides, many California students also receive support from the State of California in the form of the $9,708 Cal Grant in order to attend CMC, says Vos.

Vos believes that CMC is receiving more applications for many reasons unrelated to the public higher education budget crisis. “Acceptance rates will continue to shrink for all applicants regardless of home address,” says Vos. “This decrease has nothing to do with California’s budget or the cuts at the UC schools…CMC is continuing to see more applicants as a result of an improving reputation and many other factors.”

Admit rates aside, the greater relevance of California budget cuts is the aforementioned ways in which they are negatively impacting California-raised students. In combination with the economic recession from which the country is still recovering, these strikes at the state’s education budget simply cannot continue if there is any hope to continue offering the high quality public education California is famed for.

Anna Pickrell, a staff writer for the Claremont Port Side, is a freshman at Scripps College. She is from Moraga, California, just outside of San Francisco, and though she loves Claremont she is ultimately partial to Norcal, largely due to its use of the word “hella” as a way of life. When not writing she enjoys impersonating Liz Lemon, wishing she could be more like Veronica Mars, and lamenting over Newsweek's imminent bankruptcy.

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