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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN | Candidates answer questions about
higher education

Candidates' Ideas for Colleges Sketchy at Best

With the exception of McClintock, they shy away from talk of budget cuts.

September 01, 2003|Alan Zarembo and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

The major candidates for governor in California's recall election have yet to offer detailed solutions to the state's higher education crunch, but they love to extol the virtues of college.

"A time to explore choices," said Peter V. Ueberroth.

"How different my life would have been if I hadn't gone," said Arianna Huffington.

"The best social equalizer," said Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

The statistics bear them out: A college degree essentially has become a prerequisite for professional and financial success.

Yet when it comes to California recall politics, the fanciest degrees may not yield the biggest payoff. The person with the most prestigious degrees, Gov. Gray Davis, is the target of the October recall. The leading candidates to replace him took unusual routes through school and years to graduate. And some educators complain that none of the candidates, wherever they were schooled, have come up with even C-plus plans to fix the state's financially imperiled higher education system.

Whoever becomes governor after the Oct. 7 election will face an immediate dilemma in higher education: Amid a state budget crisis, the number of students attending community colleges and public universities in California is projected to grow by at least 400,000, to 2.7 million, by 2011.

Higher education -- which accounts for $8.68 billion, or 12% of the main state budget -- is an area where the governor and the Legislature have extra latitude in spending. So, "when there's a budget crisis, it's very hard to resist putting some cuts in higher education," said Steve Boilard, director of the higher education unit of the legislative analyst's office.

For now, however, most of the major candidates are shying away from talk of cutbacks. An exception is Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who would put on indefinite hold the development of the new University of California campus in Merced. Still, neither McClintock nor the other candidates has said much else about what they would do to safeguard higher education.

No candidate has "even put anything resembling a plan or strategy on the table as for how we're going to address the issue of the future of college opportunity in the state," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose.

In some ways, the candidates' proposals for California's higher education systems reflect where they got their degrees.

Ueberroth, the czar of the 1984 L.A. Olympics, earned a business degree from San Jose State. It's part of the Cal State system -- the nation's largest university system, although it has fewer "star" researchers than the UC campuses.

So where does he hope to save money? By pushing professors, wherever they are employed, to spend more time teaching, and put less emphasis on their own research, he said.

Davis, a Stanford graduate who earned a law degree from Columbia, is known as one of California's most generous governors in pushing for spending on higher education. Since his 1998 election, such spending is up 17.2%, according to the legislative analyst's office.

When forced to choose among the three state systems, however, he has repeatedly favored the University of California, the state's elite system, over Cal State and community colleges.

During his first term, Davis added teaching training centers at UC campuses, although Cal State is the main teacher education system in the state.

And when the state financial crisis struck last year, Davis aimed his biggest fee increases and spending cuts at the state's 108 community colleges. His January budget proposal would have more than doubled community college fees while raising UC and CSU fees by 25%.

Bustamante, on the other hand, has been an advocate for grants to low-income students, those most likely to attend community colleges. His "Tough Love for California" economic plan, unveiled on Aug. 20, calls for repealing the recent fee increases at community colleges.

At a UC Board of Regents meeting in July, a top budget official argued that, even with the fee increases, a UC education was a bargain compared with offerings at other public universities. Bustamante shot back that such comparisons are deceptive, because California students have higher costs of living than students in other states. "Liar, liar, pants on fire," he jeered.

His populist ideas reflect his own modest education.

He attended Fresno City Community College for two years after high school and spent the mid-1970s at Fresno State. But consumed by politics and family responsibilities, Bustamante dropped out. Three years ago, with his old credits in danger of expiring, he re-enrolled. Professors allowed him to write papers from Sacramento. He also took courses online.

He graduated from Fresno State in May with an interdisciplinary studies major. "I considered myself very lucky to get where I'd gotten without a college degree," he said.

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