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Pulling Back From the Future : Lower budgets and higher enrollments are delivering a one-two punch to state college students--and to California.

June 02, 1993|ADELA de la TORRE | Adela de la Torre is chair of the department of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach

Recently, I had the good fortune of participating on the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. The commission provides an opportunity for individuals early in their careers to work with Cabinet-level officials and members of the President's staff. I plowed through impressive resumes of many of our future leaders, from a planetary scientist who worked with the Voyager imaging team to a poet and scholar in federal Indian law. The candidates represented the diversity of the nation in education, sex, ethnicity, race and class. All shared a drive to succeed, an insatiable desire to continue their education in the public arena and a commitment to contribute for the public good.

More often than not, they identified key mentors in education who had triggered their dormant zeal to pursue stellar career paths. They confirmed the critical role that higher education plays in providing the future leaders of this nation the skills to promote a just and democratic society.

Educational opportunity has proved to be the mortar that binds a diverse population and propels it to greatness. It provides not only the common ground for a polity, but also the technical training required for maintaining a competitive economy. Since the 1960s, the Golden State's political leaders have recognized that our economic future is inextricably linked to providing high-quality, affordable and accessible higher education to our high school graduates. Many of the state's productivity gains were realized not from regulatory reform or tax breaks for entrepreneurs, but by providing the research and training of individuals for key sectors in the California economy.

California higher education will face an explosive demand of 700,000 additional students in the next 15 years. Many of these students will reflect the new faces of California's work force, and this multicultural student population will require universities and colleges to develop innovative teaching strategies. At the same time, the state's higher-education system is facing a financial crisis. Given the projected growth of the state economy and the revenues needed to sustain our three-segment system--community colleges, California State University and the University of California--it is not possible to meet the increased student demand. Although many university administrators have eloquently articulated this crisis in terms of limited state funds, shrinking tax base and explosive enrollment, they have not eloquently portrayed the human suffering of shortsighted cutbacks.

Students who will be entering the state's colleges this fall will no longer pay fees; rather, they will pay tuition with no clear upper boundary. In the last two years, UC undergraduate fees have more than doubled, from approximately $1,820 per year to $4,039 for 1993-94. CSU tuition has gone from $780 three years ago to $1,788 for 1993-94. And if Gov. Wilson gets his way, fees at the community colleges will go from $10 to $30 a unit--$50 for students who have a bachelor's degree. Next year, students will compete for space in larger classes and will have to live with uncertainty about whether it will be possible to complete a bachelor's degree in four years. Students who planned their schedules to balance work with school will soon realize that course enrollment does not guarantee course access. And parents who saved $40,000 nest eggs for their children's education will soon realize that for the class of 1997 or 1998, this is merely a down payment.

Can we block the downward spiral of higher education? Should we also view this as an opportunity to reform a system in dire need of repair? These two questions are being addressed by the Legislature and key education administrators throughout the state. Many of these policy leaders are suggesting innovative solutions to the financial crisis facing higher education. Unfortunately, the public has not been fully informed.

* People have the right to know what percentage of their dollars is used for instruction, for research and for administrative support.

* Given our prior commitment to equal access, legislators should match set-asides for student financial aid with any fee or tuition increase. Social equity is a sine qua non for public education and no qualified student should be discriminated against because of financial status.

* Joint research ventures, collaborative teaching projects and combined doctoral programs should be considered between CSU and UC.

* Faculty, administrators and the public must not forget that quality undergraduate education is the underpinning for all higher education. The quality of undergraduate teaching will determine the state's competitive edge in the 21st Century. It also will provide our work force with the skills to survive and contribute as leaders in an increasingly complex and diverse global society.

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