Sunday, March 11, 2012

California's Higher Education Systems Face New Challenges


We all get a little discouraged by the news coming out of Sacramento in regards to higher education funding. Perhaps I should amend that to say, we get very discouraged.

The news hasn’t exactly been rosy for the past couple of years, and as we anticipate the release of the Governor’s state budget- last week’s announcement by the Legislature that the 112-college system would take another $149 million of unexpected cuts this year, was met with disapproval and protest.

The cuts were necessitated because of an unexpected higher demand this school year for student fee waivers, specifically the Board of Governor’s Grant, plus lower-than-projected property tax revenues, according to a system news release.

“This $149 million reduction is unexpected and even larger than the mid-year trigger cut that the community college system has already endured,” California Community College Chancellor Scott said in a prepared statement.

Protests at all the regional schools, including Mt. San Antonio College, Cal Poly Pomona, and a well publicized protest at the start of the new semester at Pasadena City College, where the college president had to address a throng of angry students, have sadly become the norm at the start of every new school semester.

While working at Citrus College in Glendora this week, a familiar sight for me has been students hanging outside of bungalows and classrooms, hoping to add to already full-to-the-brim class sections, while a professor addresses the crowds, like a ring leader mitigating the chaos.

Meanwhile, the Little Hoover’s Commission Report, an independent state oversight agency tasked with updating the community colleges to meet evolving demands, has made some eye opening recommendations to fix the ailing system’s wounds, or to at least try and stop some of the bleeding.

According to the commission’s executive summary, it recommends that community colleges refine their mission scope to prioritize preparation for transfer to four-year universities, career technical education and adult basic education, establish a credit unit cap, tie a portion of funding to student outcomes, and shift responsibility and funding for all adult basic skills education programs to the community colleges, among many others.

Yet the part of the commission’s report that stood out to me most, as a former student and a byproduct of the community college system, is the one that recommends the establishment of additional criteria for Board of Governors fee waivers.

According to a recent article in the New University, the student newspaper at UC Irvine, California gives billions of dollars to support higher education every year. During the 2009-2010 school year UC students received billions in financial aid from the federal and state governments as well as private sources. This totaled $2.1 billion dollars for undergraduate and $1.5 billion to graduate students.

These financial aid incentives may be a thing of the past and what’s troubling about the possible recommended restructuring of the BOG waivers, coupled with Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal that calls for cutting funding to the Cal Grant system (totaling $131.2 million, according to the California Department of Finance), is that a college student’s imperative to explore career options, majors, or even to enrich their skills seems like it may also fall by the wayside.

This comes in the wake of “graduation initiatives” pushed by CSU administrators which have turned the state schools into more like factory lines, churning out graduates by the hundreds, rather than offering a plethora of programs and options like they once did.

Think of it in these terms: A student who enrolls in a community college, even after already having graduated or having obtained a bachelor’s from a four year institution will be required to pay out of pocket for classes to enhance their skills set, such as courses in specialized software programs. Does this not seem a little contrary to the state’s goal to meet their future needs with a competent, well prepared work force? Considering the price of education has risen 498.3 percent from 1985 to 2011, and continues to rise, is this even a realistic expectation?

These are the questions facing the future of the Golden State’s higher education systems, as Gov. Jerry Brown pushes to place a temporary increase in income taxes on high earners with a half-cent rise in the sales tax on the November ballot. I shudder to think how much worse it will be if Brown’s tax initiatives go down in defeat.

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