Budget cuts devastate California higher ed

When California college students return to campus this fall, they’ll find crowded classrooms, less access to faculty and counselors, fewer technology-related perks and other campus services, and more difficulty getting classes they need to graduate–all while paying higher fees.

The state’s financial crisis is battering its world-renowned system of higher education, reducing college opportunities for residents and threatening California’s economic recovery.

Faced with steep declines in tax revenue, states are reducing funding to public colleges and universities across the country. That could hamper the nation’s rebound from a deep recession and undermine President Barack Obama’s goal of making the United States the world leader in college graduates by 2020, experts say.

“It’s going to be harder for me to continue to be in school,” said Nancy Santana, 25, a single mother who attends San Diego’s Miramar College and worries her financial aid will be reduced. “I may be forced to cut school and find a job without a degree.”

No state is cutting more deeply than California, which has more than 3 million students attending college.

To close its massive budget deficit, the state has slashed funding to its 110 community colleges, the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, and the 10-campus University of California (UC) system, one of the nation’s leading research institutions.

The schools have responded by boosting fees, turning away record numbers of students, expanding class sizes, eliminating programs, laying off staff, and furloughing professors and other employees.

“The total magnitude of the cuts imposed in California is unprecedented,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “In the 30 years I’ve been watching higher-education policy, I’ve never seen a state implement budget cuts of this size and scope.”

California’s future is at risk if fewer people earn college degrees, laid-off workers fail to develop the skills employers demand, and universities lose their ability to recruit and retain top researchers, experts say.

An April study by the Public Policy Institute of California projected the state would face a shortage of nearly 1 million college-educated workers by 2025 and warned that funding cuts would worsen the skills gap.

“We’ll see a decline in the number of college graduates when the economy demands more,” said Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

For decades, other states and countries have looked to California’s three-tiered system of higher education as a model for access, affordability, and academic excellence. Its 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education opened college to all residents and helped make the state an engine of economic growth and technological innovation.

But the steep economic downturn has forced California to make drastic cuts to education, health care, and social services to close a $60 billion budget deficit, the largest in state history.

UC and CSU will receive 20 percent less state funding this year than they did two years ago.