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California college crunch

Budget cuts, fee hikes, forced days off -- the Cal State system is under siege.

July 16, 2009|Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. | Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. heads the geography department at Cal State Long Beach.

In just under two months, students will start the new academic year at 23 Cal State campuses across the state. They'll encounter a new university, one that shows the effects of cutting $584 million from the budget.

If they are lucky enough to get the courses they need and want, those classes will be more crowded than ever before. Teachers and support staff will be less available and more stretched and tired, as they educate and advise more students with fewer resources. The latest money-saving proposal from the chancellor would add two "days off" a month -- the equivalent of four weeks of campus closures for the school year, with all services except emergency management and the dormitories shut down.

The students' 2009-2010 fees, which already have been increased by 10%, are likely to go up another 15% to 20%. Cal State will put 33% of that increase into student financial aid. Still, most students will face a real tuition increase of 16% to 20% this year, even as they're expected to pick up the slack and teach themselves while their access to professors, libraries and technical support is decreased.

Given California's budgetary crisis, there is no doubt cuts can and should be made in the CSU system. And structural adjustments will continue to take place in the wake of the changing (and challenging) California economy regardless of what the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger do.

But the depth of these cuts means we're facing more than simply modifying Cal State's approach to education; we're looking at the potential wholesale abandonment of the master plan, California's commitment to providing a college education to all its young people who qualify. Enrollment alone won't take the hit, but it's instructive to see the cuts in those terms: Cal State's loss of $584 million is the equivalent of cutting 95,000 of the system's 450,000 students. As a department chair, I spend day and night trying to determine the best places to slash our very modest teaching budget to balance the needs of students with the realities of decreasing resources. What can be sacrificed? What must we protect at all costs?

Trust me, the faculty can and already does teach with the bare bones. But what happens when there is no money to replace failing technology or retiring experts in our fields? What happens when this institution's greatest assets -- its people -- either drift away, demoralized, or are shunted aside as the system downsizes? All because the state can't manage its affairs and fulfill its own policies and goals.

So what is the cost of gutting the Cal State system? Fewer nurses. Fewer teachers. Fewer engineers. Fewer poets and artists. Fewer film and electronic arts experts. Fewer MBAs. Fewer people to drive the future of California, including fewer geographers trained in my department. These reductions in educated human capital will hit California at a time when the state needs 2 million additional college graduates by the year 2020.

I have always looked forward to the first day of classes, but not this year. This year, I am going to have a hard time looking students in the face as I have to tell them: "Sorry, you probably won't graduate this year. We don't have the money to run all the classes you will need to complete your degree."

How do you explain to students that the state has given up on them? Governor, any good one-liners I might use?

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