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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 2:12 PM EDT

This was the heyday of California higher education. Enrollment grew by 300% between 1930 and 1960, and the state's share of college funding kept pace. But that all started to change on June 6, 1978, when California voters approved Proposition 13, a ballot measure that limited property tax assessments. More importantly, it handcuffed state lawmakers by requiring a two-thirds supermajority any time they wanted to increase taxes, and made a two-thirds vote among citizens necessary to raise local taxes. Prop. 13 kicked off California's "tax revolt" of the 1970s and 1980s, a slew of ballot measures that choked off revenue for state and local governments and left lawmakers scrambling to fill the gap. It was the beginning of the demise of public higher education in California.

"We're Just Getting Chainsawed"

Journalist Peter Schrag describes what followed as the "Mississippification" of California. Hot with the fever of an anti-tax, small-government movement, Californians began the long, slow burn-down of the state's higher education system. As Jeff Bleich, a former Cal State trustee and former counsel to President Obama, put it in 2009, California higher education "is being starved to death by a public that thinks any government service—even public education—is not worth paying for. And by political leaders who do not lead but instead give in to our worst, shortsighted instincts."

The numbers tell the story. In 2011, public colleges and universities received 13% less in state money than they had in 1980 (when adjusted for inflation). In 1980, 15% of the state budget had gone to higher education; by 2011, that number had dropped to 9%. Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 state budgets, lawmakers sliced away another $1.5 billion in funding, the largest such reduction in any high-population state in the country.

Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the office of University of California president Mark Yudof, couldn't contain her dismay when reacting to recent cuts. "Here we have the world's best public university system, and we're just getting chainsawed," she told the Daily Californian. "Public education is dying, and perhaps we are reaching a tipping point."

According to a 2010 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, young adults in California are less likely to graduate from college than their parents. Among the 20 most populous states, California ranked 18th in 2010 in its rate of students going straight from high school to college; factor in all states and California ranked 40th. According to the institute, this crumbling bridge between high school and college means California could face a shortfall of a million skilled workers by 2025.

And what awaits the students who do make it into the ivory tower? Let me paint you a grim picture. Colleges are filling the gap in state funding by leaning ever harder on students and their families to pay more in tuition and fees. Thirty years ago, the state accounted for nearly 70% of public higher education funding; today, it's 25%. In the last five years alone, student fees have doubled for University of California and Cal State students. For community college students, they've leapt by 80%.

Students increasingly hunt for grants and scholarships to cover some part of their growing share of the tab, but far more often their only option is to take out loans. According to the Project on Student Debt, in 2010 nearly half of all graduates of public and private four-year schools in California were saddled with an average debt load of $18,000. Nationally, a record one-in-five college graduates has student loan debt, and in 2010, the national average for debt owed was $26,682, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.

In California, community colleges have always been the most democratic of California's higher education options. They educate the majority of students, offer the most classes, and provide students with job training or a launching pad to a four-year college. They have, however, taken a Mike Tyson-esque beating in California's budget crises, losing $809 million—or 12% of their state funding—since 2008.

That's meant reduced class offerings, fewer sections of the classes that remain, and the laying off of faculty and staff. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, 85% of California's 112 community colleges had waiting lists of students trying to get into overbooked classes. In all, 470,000 community college students were stuck in such a situation. Eighty-two percent of these colleges said they weren't offering any winter semester classes at all. Enrollment is down at community colleges by 17%. "We're at the breaking point," Jack Scott, the recently retired community college chancellor, told the Los Angeles Times in September.

Marianet Tirado, a student at Los Angeles Trade Tech, told the Times that class shortages meant it could take her three to four years to get her two-year associate's degree. Tirado's situation is increasingly commonplace. "It's hard to explain to my mom that I'm trying to go to school but the classes are not there," she said.

The budget cuts have also hit faculty and staff hard. Seventy percent of community colleges said in a recent survey that they'd cut hours for support staffs. On Cal State campuses, the faculty-student ratio has jumped from 21 students per faculty member in 1980 to 32-to-1 in 2010—and the same trend can be seen among the system's elite schools, with the faculty-student ratio there inching up from 16-to-1 to 21-to-1 over the same period. As faculty members deal with larger class size, more papers to read, more tests to grade, their pay has failed to keep pace. Salaries for Cal State professors haven't budged from the $75,000 to $93,000 range for the last 30 years. Adjust for inflation and CSU professors earned less in 2010 than they did in 1980.

So where did all that money go? Here's a hint: Look for the men who wear orange jumpsuits, sleep stacked atop each other in triple-decker bunk beds, and each year gobble up an ever greater share of California's ever scarcer finances.

The State's higher education and prison systems are a study in opposites. The prison system saw its state funding in dollars leap 436% between 1980 and 2011. Back then, spending on prisons was a mere 3% of California's budget; it's now 10%. According to the nonpartisan transparency group California Common Sense, the prison population expanded at eight times the growth rate of California's population. In May 2011, the US Supreme Court ordered the state to immediately shrink its prison population because its treatment of prisoners constituted cruel and unusual punishment. At the time, its 33 prisons held 143,321 inmates (official capacity: 80,000).

If money talks, then California's message is plain enough: prisoners matter more than students. Put another way: college is the past, jail is the future.

Anger and disillusionment over California's abandonment of its students, teachers, and staff boiled over in 2011. Protests sprung up at campuses across the state. Students shut down a meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents, walked out of classes at San Francisco State, and clashed with truncheon-swinging police in Long Beach and Berkeley.

But the most indelible of these protests unfolded on the campus of UC-Davis, an hour's drive northeast of San Francisco. Student protesters there disobeyed campus rules by staging a peaceful sit-in on a footpath in the campus quad. For their efforts Lt. John Pike, a barrel-chested, helmeted, mustachioed campus cop, doused them with pepper spray. He did so in a manner so nonchalant that it triggered immediate shock and outrage; photos and videos of the incident shot across the globe in meme form. There was Lt. Pike pepper-spraying God in Michaelangelo's "Creation of Adam," soaking the Declaration of Independence in John Trumbull's 1817 painting, feeding the raging flames that swallowed up the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc after he had set himself ablaze in Saigon in 1963.

A rallying cry for the dozen or so students who occupied that path was the price of an education. In just eight years, tuition at UC-Davis had more than doubled.

Back to School—or Not?

Rachel Baltazar did not show up for fall classes at Santa Clara University. Without the state grant she'd hoped for, she returned to De Anza for a third year. She's starting a paid internship in which she'll school students in how to better navigate the world of college financial aid. "I want to try to help people understand what their options are," she told me. "I don't want somebody else to be in my shoes. It was so hard."

Recently, Baltazar and a friend traveled down the coast to Santa Cruz. She stopped in a tourist shop, and a postcard on a rack caught her eye. It listed a smattering of facts from 1981, the year she was born. Her gaze settled on one particular figure: Harvard University tuition was then $6,000. The nation's oldest and most prestigious university had cost just six grand. That's $15,206 in today's dollars. She couldn't believe it. At De Anza, Baltazar said she spent $18,000 a year in tuition and living costs.

Baltazar told me that she's still set on getting her bachelor's degree. She'll try again for Santa Clara, and also apply to state schools. She's not picky; she can't afford to be. "I will apply to anybody who will take me and help me pay for it," she said.

Like a lot of young people in California, Baltazar clings to the dream of public higher education, but in her life, as in those of so many others across the state, it's curdling into something more like a nightmare. "I went to school in California because I knew there were more financial aid options, I knew about the Cal Grant, and I thought, 'I should be able to get these things,'" she told me. "In California, the education system is great—if you can afford it. If you can't afford it, it's kind of a moot point."

California once led the way into a system of unparalleled public higher education. It now seems determined to lead the way out of it.

Andy Kroll is a staff reporter in D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine. He's the son of two graduates of California's higher education system, and he himself graduated from a public institution, the University of Michigan. An associate editor at TomDispatch, he writes about politics, money, and the economy, and can be reached at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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