By thomas d. elias | op ed in the Palo Alto Daily News
11/24/2009 10:39:24 PM PST - The University of California now says it will ask state legislators for $913 million more next year than it received in this year's budget. The California State University system will ask for an increase of $884 million.
These requests come as public college and university tuition and other fees are climbing to levels that will soon approach those of top private campuses. What's more, despite the universities' requests, any likelihood of higher education getting more money next year seems like a pipe dream when estimates of next year's state budget deficit range from $7 billion to $24 billion, figures so daunting they helped spur the resignation of the state's finance director, who admits he considered ways to put California into bankruptcy last spring.
Meanwhile, enrollments are being cut, class sizes are rising, availability of small sections where students can get detailed instruction from graduate students on concepts discussed in large lecture classes are dwindling and community college enrollment is up, while successful transfers from them to four-year campuses are down to only about 40 percent.
Taken together, this sad picture translates into a serious truncation of the California dream.
Public higher education has always been a huge part of that dream, the vehicle of upward mobility for millions of enterprising students over the last century and the engine at the heart of almost all this state's many successes.
When the State Water Project pioneered the transportation of huge amounts of water over high mountains, UC-trained engineers did most of the conceptual work and drew the bulk of the plans. While big Silicon Valley successes like Hewlett-Packard and Google were founded by products of the private Stanford University, they could not have gotten far without thousands of talented programmers and engineers turned out by UC and Cal State schools — including the current chairman of Google. When California developed into the world's agricultural leader, it was in large part sparked by graduates of UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis, UC-Riverside and several Cal State campuses.
The list could go on and on.
All this is seriously threatened now by a trend in Sacramento toward cutting higher education first. Things are so bad that more money is now spent on state prisons than state universities, a startling turnabout from the decades when the UC and Cal State systems pioneered making quality education available and affordable to every qualified person.
One example of the consequences is what's happening at San Jose State University, where 2,500 fewer students will be enrolled next fall than entered this September, when the school already cut 3,000 slots. San Jose State will accept all qualified students from surrounding Santa Clara County, but will limit entry by non-area residents and toughen standards for admission to popular majors like engineering, business and nursing.
"We're downsizing," campus President Jon Whitmore told a reporter, "so if there is a smaller group of students and a smaller group of employees, we are still providing a quality education."
With the same sort of thing happening across the state, fewer qualified workers will be available to major industries. CSU plans to downsize by 40,000 students statewide, enough promising young people to fill a small city. True, there will still be more than 400,000 students on CSU campuses, but fewer university graduates will be able to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the University of California plans to cut about 2,500 students, leaving it with just over 100,000 total slots. These numbers spell shrinkage for the California dream.
This impending tragedy could be avoided, of course, if attitudes were different in state government. Providing an additional $2 billion to the universities would end all these cuts and restore most classes and student slots. That would cost an average of $52 per year — a dollar a week — per Californian.
California voters repeatedly show in local elections they are willing to pay far more than that in parcel taxes, city sales taxes and other levies when they can see the benefits that money will provide. But statewide politicians have never even tried to make a case for higher education. It's far easier to cut and slash and raise tuition and fees and drive the state's once-proud university systems into something less than world-class stature, allowing them to contribute even less to the state's future.
So attitudes — and maybe a lot of politicians — need to change if the education component so vital to the California dream is to be revitalized. For Californians have shown time and again they are willing to pay when convinced their money is needed and won't be wasted.
Which means money isn't the only thing lacking in these days of fiscal and budgetary crisis. There's a lack of leadership with vision for this state's future.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about state issues. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.