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Cutting school? When will the state learn?

Budget authorities are undermining California's investment in its economic future

March 05, 2009|MICHAEL HILTZIK

In the spirit of the New Reality of today's world, I'd like to propose a change in the California state motto.

Instead of "Eureka (I have found it)," which lately has been sounding a little threadbare, how about this one, derived from the glide path of our public systems of higher education: "California -- penny-wise, pound-foolish"?

The new state budget continues a years-long trend in resources allocated to the University of California and California State University: less than they need, by an ever-widening margin.

Sure, things are tough statewide. We've been living beyond our means.

The problem with applying these bromides to the educational system is that the state universities (the community colleges included) are the closest thing to an investment in the state's future that we can budget for.

Nevertheless, every year we fall further behind in producing the college graduates industry needs. Come 2025, the demand for college-educated workers in California will rise to 41% of the state's workforce, according to a projection by the Public Policy Institute of California -- up from about 34% today and 28% in 1990.

Will they be homegrown? Not if current trends continue.

"Clearly we will not meet these needs," says Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who sits ex officio on both the Cal State Board of Trustees and the UC Board of Regents. "We are not producing nurses and technicians and engineers in the numbers we have to. We are making a very serious economic mistake when we don't support higher education."

At Cal State's 23 campuses, to consider the system that will provide the bulk of these workers, the state budget dictates enrollment levels far below the number of students the system already serves.

CSU, consequently, has been forced to close its doors to 10,000 students who would otherwise be eligible, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed told me recently. That will cut the student body to about 450,000, he says, reducing the corps of graduates to 85,000 a year from 90,000.

"The state is at a crossroads," Reed says. "What kind of California do we want? A state with one of the best workforces in the world, with many innovative and creative people? One that's economically competitive on a worldwide basis?"

He didn't outline the alternative, but it's easy enough to imagine. Cal State graduates 82% of the nurses in California, he observes, along with 65% of its teachers. It's a major source of engineers and skilled agricultural workers.

For students, the system traditionally has been a great bargain. Cal State charges tuition fees of $4,000 or less a year, with about 125,000 students attending on a no-fee basis. The state budget is supposed to contribute about $8,700 a student, but the last budget chiseled the system out of funding for 10,000 students -- hence the enrollment cut.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger initially proposed taking a hatchet to the Cal Grant program, which provides aid to UC and Cal State students, but the cuts were averted at the last minute. Still, the aid program sits on a budgetary knife edge.

Sacramento chose this year, as it has for the last three, to cut the budget deficit in part by siphoning money from the universities. Fees at UC and Cal State will go up about 10% in the coming year, further restricting access by high school graduates, especially from lower-wage families.

California spends about as much in state funds on prisons as on universities, presumably on the principle that if we're not going to adequately educate our residents, we should be prepared to jail them.

The misuse of state resources represented by these two programs is astonishing. The state's spending translates into about $46,000 a year per inmate and about $11,000 per Cal State and UC student.

Is there a logical explanation for this kind of policymaking? I'd suggest sending the governor and Legislature back to university for remedial education in public policy and budgetary math, but I suspect the available classroom spaces have all been cut. Times are tough, you know.

The most important thing to keep in mind when we talk about higher education is how much of a bargain it is for the state's employers. Business leaders, especially in high-tech and "knowledge" industries, generally say they are drawn to California because of its skilled and trained workforce. Meg Whitman, the ex-CEO of EBay and GOP hopeful for governor, hit that theme pretty hard when I interviewed her a few weeks ago.

Yet the business community often seems to expect this workforce to emerge out of thin air. The California Chamber of Commerce's approach to education is twofold, demanding (1) costly improvements and (2) tax cuts.

In its education policy brief, the chamber thunders that state leaders should "encourage and nurture students" in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It insists on "accountability" from the educational system and the production of "workforce ready" graduates. That's a rather mechanistic way of thinking of human beings.

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