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California hits new low in higher education

November 29, 2009|Sandy Banks
  • Students and faculty protest outside the Cal State trustees' meeting in Long Beach, seeking to end the continual "academic restructuring" that comes with budget cuts.
Students and faculty protest outside the Cal State trustees' meeting… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

If you're the parent of a child aiming to attend a California State University campus next fall, you might want to give him or her a nudge this morning. Today is the deadline for Cal State applications, and overloaded admissions officers are expecting a last-minute flood.

In years past, the deadline was a flexible one, in keeping with the state's mission to allow all eligible students to enroll in one of the campuses, considered the middle rung between community colleges and our flagship UC system.

But this year, admission requirements are tightening. Cuts in state funding have forced the Cal State system to reduce enrollment over the next two years by 40,000. That means some campuses will turn away all but the most accomplished students. Others will favor applicants choosing underenrolled majors, or limit admission to local residents.

Those students who do get in will pay more in fees and have fewer choices. Many will have to scramble for classes, search for jobs to cope with higher expenses, learn to take notes sitting cross-legged on classroom floors and shout to be heard in jammed lecture halls.

And all of them will learn real-life lessons in the new economics of a tarnished Golden State, where my generation is reneging on its promise.

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We've been paying lots of attention to the plight of the cash-strapped University of California system, where unprecedented fee increases threaten to make it more expensive to attend UCLA than a private school like Stanford, where financial aid packages are now tailored to accommodate middle-class students.

But the diminution of the Cal State system is just as profound as it absorbs a $500 million funding cut. A story Sunday by Times reporter Carla Rivera outlined the challenges campuses face: faculty cuts, temporary shutdowns, entire majors on the chopping block.

It looks even worse from where I sit, as the mother of both a Cal State freshman who can't get a class in her major and a community college student trying to transfer who wonders now if her 3.5 GPA will be good enough for what were considered "safety" schools a few years back.

How, they wonder, could things have changed so fast?

At freshman orientation last summer, San Francisco State looked like so much fun. So did Cal State Northridge and Chico and Humboldt and Sonoma. Now every student we know at those schools spent Thanksgiving vacation sharing stories of struggle.

The dance major can't get a dance class at San Francisco State; they're reserved for upperclassmen who need the credits for graduation. No drama class, no piano . . . all filled or canceled. "If you can't practice your art, you lose your edge," she said. She couldn't help but envy her drama club buddy, who went east to a private school and has been in two drama productions already.

The psychology major can't even sign up for her basic freshman requirements at Chico. By the time her assigned registration spot came around, "everything was gone. I sat over the computer for two hours," she said, "then just broke down crying."

And my daughter is torn between disappointment because the creative writing class she needs was canceled and pity for her overworked professors, who apologize for not knowing the students better and for giving multiple-choice instead of essay exams.

"It's sad," my daughter said. "They hate to turn anybody away because there are no other options. . . . The students are crying, trying to crash the classes." Every class she's in has more students than seats. You get there early or find a seat on the floor.

Yet, listening to them talk, I get the sense that my daughter and her friends are learning something important, even if it's not on the syllabus and not what I imagined her learning in college.

They see the angst of their professors. Some are so resentful, their venom over pay cuts poisons their lessons. Others are so sympathetic, they overload their classes.

"They're frantic about it," my daughter said. "They know they don't have time to teach us everything we're supposed to learn, but they can't take it out on us, because they know we're suffering."

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I can't help but feel like I've let my daughter down, as I try to help her make sense of her plight.

"I don't get why they picked higher education to cut," she said. In a budget of billions, "couldn't they find something else? Did they just, like, look at the things they could pick to get out of the recession and think cutting higher education made sense somehow?"

I do my best George Skelton impression -- explaining about falling revenues, spending mandates, our state's screwy budgeting system. But I am the "they," like everyone else. Saying our hands are tied feels to me like an admission of failure, and sounds to my daughter like a cop-out.

I can't help thinking of the protest sign I saw a student carrying at a demonstration at UCLA -- We don't cut prisons. Why do we cut education?

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