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Cal State threatens to withhold $7 million from Northridge campus

Cal State says CSUN must reduce current enrollment to abide by budget-related targets or risk losing the funding.

January 28, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Cal State Northridge recently imposed a cap on the number of credits most of its students can carry and is enforcing it during the current add-drop period.
Cal State Northridge recently imposed a cap on the number of credits most… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Students and faculty at Cal State Northridge are protesting new budget-related restrictions that are aimed at reducing enrollment and are making it harder to register for classes at the San Fernando Valley campus.

In the fall semester, the school enrolled several thousand more students than the target set by the Cal State system's central administration in response to cutbacks in state funding. Now the system is threatening to withhold $7 million from the 34,000-student campus if it doesn't partly roll back enrollment for the current spring semester by the equivalent of 2,800 full-time students, officials said.

As a result, Cal State Northridge recently imposed a cap on the number of credits most students can carry and is enforcing it during the current add-drop period. Except for graduating seniors and a few other groups, that will mean no more than 15 credits. Also, the school has barred professors from enrolling extra students in their classes beyond a formal limit.

The overall amount of students' class credits is the most important part of the formula to distribute much of state funding to higher education. Cal State system officials say it is not right for some campuses to keep taking additional students while there is not enough money for sufficient counseling and library services.

The result, said psychology and deaf studies major Miriam Barragan, is that "students are really struggling now with their school schedule." A junior, she was initially enrolled in so few courses that she was at risk of losing some financial aid. She added one more class to avoid that but still does not have the psychology courses she needs to meet requirements for her major. And she complained that the usual tactic of beseeching professors to let her in is no longer a possibility.

Harold Hellenbrand, the interim campus president, said he reluctantly imposed those rules even though he disagrees with the reasoning that led to them. The Cal State system hopes the state will increase funding if enough families see their children shut out of classes and protest, he said.

But Hellenbrand said he does not think the state has the money no matter how loud the complaints. Nevertheless, ignoring the enrollment mandate will worsen things for students, he added.

"The kids on campus are caught in the vise of this stuff," Hellenbrand said after meeting this week with about 150 students and faculty who are upset about the changes. He described some students' situations as "quite poignant and depressing."

Maria Elena Fernandez, a Chicano studies lecturer, recalled that in the past she often allowed a small number of extra students beyond enrollment caps to take her classes if they needed them to fulfill requirements. That meant extra grading work for her, but she said she was happy to meet some of the demand. This term, however, 22 students want a spot in her already full history class, but she's prohibited from letting them in.

"The really bad thing about it is that there is no need to do this. It doesn't cost the university or the CSU system any more to let us add a few more students," she said, adding that the policy also restricts faculty's authority to manage their classes.

Officials attribute some of Cal State Northridge's overcrowding to students being squeezed out at other campuses, such as Pomona and Long Beach, and to tuition hikes that encourage students to take more classes in an effort to graduate more quickly.

Five other Cal State campuses, including Dominguez Hills, San Marcos and Bakersfield, also were over-enrolled in the fall, but Northridge faces the largest penalty because it exceeded its target the most, according to Cal State system officials. They explain that over-enrollment strains campus services for which there is not enough money and that caps on credits are a fair way to distribute class spots.

"It should be obvious that we're not able to operate as usual" when state funding has been slashed and tuition increases recoup only a part of that, said Cal State spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp.

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