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The Slow Death of California's Higher Education

California has slashed higher ed spending, while prison spending has quintupled.

| Tue Oct. 2, 2012 11:12 AM PDT

Pimentel Hall at University of California, Berkeley

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

It was the greatest education system the world had ever seen. They built it into the eucalyptus-dotted Berkeley hills and under the bright lights of Los Angeles, down in the valley in Fresno and in the shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains. Hundreds of college campuses, large and small, two-year and four-year, stretching from California's emerald forests in the north to the heat-scorched Inland Empire in the south. Each had its own DNA, but common to all was this: they promised a "public" education, accessible and affordable, to those with means and those without, a door with a welcome mat into the ivory tower, an invitation to a better life.

Then California bled that system dry. Over three decades, voters starved their state—and so their colleges and universities—of cash. Politicians siphoned away what money remained and spent it more on imprisoning people, not educating them. College administrators grappled with shriveling state support by jacking up tuitions, tacking on new fees, and so asking more each year from increasingly pinched students and families. Today, many of those students stagger under a heap of debt as they linger on waiting lists to get into the over-subscribed classes they need to graduate.

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California's public higher education system is, in other words, dying a slow death. The promise of a cheap, quality education is slipping away for the working and middle classes, for immigrants, for the very people whom the University of California's creators held in mind when they began their grand experiment 144 years ago. And don't think the slow rot of public education is unique to California: that state's woes are the nation's.

Dream Deferred

Rachel Baltazar lives this grim reality. In 2010, after a decade working as a preschool teacher and a teacher's assistant, the 28-year-old Baltazar went back to school, choosing De Anza, a two-year community college near San Jose. She remembers the sticker shock when she first arrived on campus—the cost per class had spiked startlingly since she graduated from high school in 2000. She would live lean, pick up side jobs, sacrifice what she could to get a degree. "I was willing to be poor and not know if I'm gonna make it," she told me on a recent morning, her roommate's cat meowing in the background. "I wanted that degree so I could have a better future."

She squeezed 20 units of classes into a quarter (not the 12 to 15 of the average student). She worried each week about having enough money for rent, books, food. Still, she thrived. She founded De Anza's Women Empowered Club, won the school's President's Award for overcoming adversity, and planned to transfer to nearby Santa Clara University to double major in psychology and women's studies—until, that is, a state-funded "Cal Grant" fell through.

She met all the qualifications, she told me, but Cal Grant officials informed her that she was too old. The likely culprit, whatever they claimed: the endless state budget cuts that had forced officials to scale back the Cal Grant program. The experience, she said, shook her fundamental belief in the promise California made to its students: "The impression you have is, 'I do a great job at De Anza and I'll get to the next level.' The reality is there might not be a place for you."

This is something new in what was once known as "the golden state." For nearly as long as colleges and universities operated in California, there was a place for every student with the grades to get in. Classes were cheap, professors accessible, and enrollments grew at a rapid clip. When my own father started at Mt. San Antonio College in southern California in August 1976, anyone 18 or older could enroll, and a semester's worth of classes cost at most $24. Then, like so many Californians, he transferred to a four-year college, the University of California-Davis, and paid a similarly paltry $220 a quarter. Davis's 2012 per-quarter tuition price: $4,620.

Today, public education in California is ever less public. It is cheaper for a middle-class student to attend Harvard (about $17,000 for tuition, room, and board with the typical financial-help program included) than Cal State East Bay, a mid-tier school that'll run that same middle-class student $24,000 a year. That speaks to Harvard's largesse when it comes to financial aid, but also the relentless rise of tuition costs in California. For the first time in generations, California's community colleges and state universities are turning away qualified new students and shrinking their enrollments as state funding continues its long, slow decline. Many students who do gain admission struggle to enroll in the classes they need—which, by the way, cost more than they ever have. "We're in a new era," says John Aubrey Douglass, an expert on the history of higher education in California. He's not exaggerating. Not a bit.

"In the Valley with the People"

California would not exist as we know it today without higher education. At its peak, the state's constellation of community colleges and Cal State and University of California campuses had no rival. It was the crown jewel of American education.

Abraham Lincoln launched the college-building craze when, in 1862, as the bullets flew and the bodies fell on the battlefields of the Civil War, he signed the Morrill Act, giving every state a huge tract of federal land with which to build a public university. In 1869, California joined the craze by opening the University of California. One newspaper editorial hailed it as "the perfect structure, a magazine of new thoughts and new motives, ready for the new and bright day of the future." Another supporter declared that it would be a "mighty anchor in the stream of time."

Yet not until California's trust-busting Progressive politicians claimed power in the early 1900s did the populist promise of the state's higher education system begin to take shape. The Progressives saw higher education as a path to the middle class—and with an educated middle class they were convinced they could loosen the stranglehold corporate powers like the Southern Pacific Railroad had on the state. "The university was their Progressive dream come true," historian Kevin Starr has written.

State support for the University of California soared from a few hundred thousand dollars in 1900 to more than $3 million by 1920. As future UC president Clark Kerr would write, "The campus is no longer on the hill with the aristocracy but in the valley with the people."

Down in that valley, more and more people wanted an education. New campuses sprouted statewide before World War II, and then in its wake were flooded with returning GIs and former war workers. Governor Earl Warren used those colleges and universities as "shock absorbers" when the state's wartime economy-on-steroids slowed. He put his money on a novel concept: California would educate its way out of any post-war slump.

The education system exploded in the 1940s and 1950s. Students poured into classrooms. But not until Kerr became president did he and other education leaders attempt to create a systemic blueprint for growth with what was called the "California Master Plan for Higher Education." Under this plan, the brightest students were to attend a flagship UC school, the next-smartest group would go to a Cal State school, and the remainder would start at a two-year community college with an eye toward transferring to a four-year college.

The Master Plan brought order to a rapidly growing system. It was hailed around the world as a stroke of genius when it came to educating young people. In 1960, Time magazine even put Kerr on its cover, bestowing on him the title of "master planner." (Kerr was a complicated figure. He later clashed with UC-Berkeley's famed Free Speech Movement, yet FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed he was too close to campus activists and secretly pushed for his ouster. The college's board of regents unceremoniously fired him in 1967.)

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