• August 31, 2015

Facing New Cuts, California's Colleges Are Shrinking Their Enrollments


Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee, MCT, Newscom

Gov. Jerry Brown of California released a budget proposal on Monday that would trim $1.4-billion from the state's public colleges, making further enrollment drops likely.

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Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee, MCT, Newscom

Gov. Jerry Brown of California released a budget proposal on Monday that would trim $1.4-billion from the state's public colleges, making further enrollment drops likely.

The $1.4-billion in budget cuts proposed this week for California's public colleges could prompt a new year of protests that decry higher tuition, stagnant employee salaries, and the growing inability of Californians to afford college.

But as a barrier to student access, rising tuition may ultimately pale in comparison with a more fundamental shift: The state's colleges have started to shrink.

California's public-college enrollment declined by 165,000 during the past academic year, even as the number of people trying to get into college grew. Community colleges accounted for most of the decline, the largest in a single year since 1993.

The combination of a growing college-age population and a reduced budget has turned what was once a model for college access into a much scarcer commodity. California State University at Long Beach, which has lost more students than most colleges, enrolled only 9 percent of applicants last fall, a lower rate than at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Virginia, and only slightly higher than at Dartmouth College.

The cuts that Gov. Jerry Brown, a newly elected Democrat, has proposed would ensure that the nation's largest set of public colleges—comprising three systems—would continue downsizing well into 2012.

The campuses in the Cal State system, which had planned to grow this fall, may reverse course and cut undergraduate enrollment for the second time in two years. The University of California, which has managed to hold its numbers fairly steady, will begin to consider major enrollment cuts for 2012 at a Board of Regents meeting this month.

"The physics of the situation cannot be denied—as the core budget shrinks, so must the university," Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California, wrote in response to the governor's plan.

Where California's Transfer Students Ended Up
Far fewer community-college students were able to transfer to California State University campuses last year because of budget cuts. As the capacity of public universities has stagnated, the number of Californians who transfer to private colleges has grown.
  2003-4 2004-5 2005-6 2006-7 2007-8 2008-9 2009-10
California State U. 48,321 53,695 52,641 54,391 54,971 49,770 37,647
U. of California 12,539 13,114 13,510 13,871 13,909 14,059 14,702
Private nonprofit colleges 20,110 20,977 20,958 20,277 21,774 22,366 *
Private for-profit colleges 10,473 11,248 11,004 11,990 14,201 13,388 *
* Private-college data for 2009-10 are not yet available.
Source: California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office


Mr. Brown's budget is only a proposal, of course, and unhappy lawmakers from both parties will try to change it. But few college officials believe that the situation will improve in the coming months.

The community colleges, which face a cut of $400-million, or 6.5 percent, were nonetheless asked by the governor to expand the number of students they serve. Jack Scott, chancellor of the community-college system, said in an interview that he would resist the idea.

"If indeed this $400-million cut is enacted, I will make the argument that we should not be required to educate the same number of students," he said. "It's a quality issue."

It is impossible to predict just who would be shut out of a college education in California's next round of budget cuts. The state's three higher-education systems employ a complex calculus of ability, seniority, local priorities, and chance to determine which students get in and which ones don't.

But the effects of the most recent round of cuts, in 2008, offer a guide.

Transfer students in California, who try to leap from one sputtering system to another, have been shut out of four-year universities at a much greater rate than have incoming freshman applicants. Cal State enrolls more community-college transfer students than any other university system in the country. But in the 2009-10 academic year, fewer than 38,000 students were able to transfer from community colleges to Cal State, down from a high of 55,000 two years earlier.

Students with strong but not sparkling grades and test scores have found that public colleges that were shoo-ins for people like them just a few years ago have raised their academic standards.

Students who live in Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, San Jose, and other cities with overcrowded colleges have been shut out in record numbers. Community colleges and Cal State campuses there simply cannot keep up with regional growth.

Only four or five years ago, says Michelle Ponce, a college counselor at Millikan High School, in Long Beach, students could feel comfortable going the traditional route: earning good grades and going to Cal State's Long Beach campus.

But the sheer number of applications that the college receives—69,000 last fall, for 6,250 slots—has forced her to encourage students to look at other options. Private colleges are often a good choice, even if they can be more expensive, she says. Colleges in other states tend to have more room.

"I'll tell students in my presentations that if you want to leave the state, good for you," Ms. Ponce says. "We have too many people in the state of California. We need someone to leave right now."

Many of the students are in denial, she adds. Their parents don't understand how the landscape has shifted. "I will break out the numbers, and they kind of look at me in complete confusion," she says. "They have no idea."

Long-Term Effects

Reduced enrollment has far-reaching effects in part because recovering from it is difficult for colleges. Even after the recession has ebbed, smaller cohorts of students will still be working their way through the system, limiting the state's degree production for four years or more.

James C. Blackburn, Cal State's director of enrollment management, says some of the system's universities also have a difficult time raising enrollment once they have reduced it. Cuts in faculty, staff, and courses are difficult to reverse, and institutions can be hurt by the loss of the tuition income. After the previous round of budget cuts, he says, "it was amazing how hard it was to pump it back up again once the resources started to flow."

"It doesn't always communicate in California, but it's like driving a car on an icy road," he adds. "You don't want to overdo anything because if you swing left or swing right or try to stop too abruptly, the consequences are sometimes fatal."

Given those concerns, Cal State officials say they may not cut into enrollment quite as sharply as they have in the past. Instead, they will consider being more aggressive in other ways to reduce costs: layoffs, reduced pay or furloughs for employees, cuts in the chancellor's office, or, as a last resort, they say, more tuition increases.

But that attitude may change if Californians do not approve a $9-billion extension of tax increases that is the foundation of Governor Brown's proposed budget. If the package is voted down or fails to get on the ballot because of opposition from Republican lawmakers—a real possibility—colleges could see budget cuts that make the crises of the past few years look mild.

Mr. Scott, the community-college chancellor, estimates that the failure of the ballot measure could mean that the state's community colleges would face double the amount of cuts proposed by the governor, $800-million rather than $400-million.

Mr. Brown, who has been in office only since January 3, warned at a news conference introducing the budget proposal on Monday that no state agency would be spared from such an outcome if the tax package were not adopted. "It will be draconian," he said. "And Draco was not a very kindly chief executive."


1. 3224243 - January 14, 2011 at 07:59 am

CSU should up their admission standards and restrict transfers from CCs to those students who have actually completed an AS/AA (or met the transfer guarantee requirement). That would not only reduce enrollment but would also increase retention.

2. paievoli - January 14, 2011 at 08:03 am

Academia has to create a self-sustaining economic model and stop relying on tuition and taxes - it is very simple. Use the power of the academic groups to create revenue. This is just the start of the cuts. It is a new economic model today and new avenues need to be developed.

3. jnadler - January 14, 2011 at 08:13 am

And how much have administrators' salaries increased over the last ten years? During this same period consider how much the increase in the use of a contingent work force has increased.

America cried out for education to be run like a business. Unfortunately, the business model chosen was Wal-Mart's.

High-paid administrators are not likely to cut their own salaries when they can instead scale back even further the use of full-time faculty while increasing the use of part-time faculty -- workers who are not paid pro rata to the full-time faculty.

As the work force ages and departs (who can afford to retire), society will not have an educated populace ready to enter the work force.

But wait, our economy is now more of a service economy than a manufacturing ecnonomy and what education is needed to serve??

4. 3224243 - January 14, 2011 at 09:06 am

#3 - I'm not with CSU any longer but when I was there, members of MPP (administrators) hadn't had a raise for the last three years of my tenure. When budgets get tough, MPPs are the first ones to get their salaries frozen.

5. 11336803 - January 14, 2011 at 11:25 am

3224243: Both of these things have already happened (transfer restrictions and increased standards). Since 2003, there were raises of 1.18 percent one year and average raises another. The rest of the years have produced no increase. The university is beginning to lose talent to other places. Those who stay often do so for the retirement package, but that is now also on the table.

6. christophknoess - January 14, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I have not yet seen any economic rationale for reducing enrollment. Cost structures in higher ed are largely fixed and shared between programs and students. Consequently costs will go down by very little if enrollment shrinks by a few percentage points, and I doubt they will shrink by less than the associated loss of fees/tuition and appropriations.

A serious reduction of cost would look at cutting marginal programs or closing entire campuses. It would look at reducing non-teaching headcount and at stopping all large construction and other capex projects. Those steps would be very painful but have a true cost impact. Reducing enrollment by a little across the board is political posturing that does nothing to cost, but is intended to increase pressure on the legislature to increase funding.

7. lugalbanda - January 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Working at a university that recently went through a budget crisis, it was shocking to see the financial feast athletics had in the past and how its financial expenditures had rarely been scrutinized and justified in comparison with expenditures in academics. When there is talk of faculty layoffs, reduced enrollment, and course reductions in the Cal systems, is there also talk of how athletics will be reduced? How many coaches and trainers will be laid off, how many athletic teams will be eliminated, how many athletic scholarships will be reduced?

8. perpetual_student - January 14, 2011 at 02:11 pm

This is heart-breaking. I came to CA in my early twenties because I couldn't afford a college education in my home state. I worked my way through the CC and CSU, got a great job in the tech sector, and have had the sort of life most of my family can only dream about.

The comments that amount to "CA tuition is too cheap anyway" and "publicly-owned infrastructure shouldn't exist" feel like personal attacks, for without them I know I would have lived a hardscrabble life--not due to lack of talent, but due to lack of money.

In a state where a single corporation can report profits--not earnings, profits--equal to the state deficit, this is not a matter of necessity. This is a political decision to consolidate wealth in the hands of the few. As one of the many, I am both saddened and angered to see Jerry Brown destroying his father's legacy, which has meant so much to me.

9. dforaste - January 15, 2011 at 09:45 pm

"Standards" have been raised. As a faculty member from CSU Long Beach, I am disheartened by the way the emphasis on bureaucratic jots and tittles have kept out many young people. Our mission is to educate the top third of CA's students, the A- to B students. CA needs to provide them college educations...

-so they can both earn good money (on which they will pay enough taxes to provide us all decent public services),

-so they can build our bridges, nurse our sick and teach our grandchildren, and

-so they can learn civic involvement and be our city council members and mayors and and legislators and governors.

Solutions are not easy and Jerry Brown has been governor two weeks now. However, while prison guards deserve good wages (it's a tough job) and prisoners humane treatment, some leader must courageously reform the prison and tax systems. The prison recidivism and aging prisoner rates are killing our state. Also, as perpetual student notes, our tax structure that relies too heavily on personal income and sales taxes is a disaster. If we like police and fire protection, state parks, food inspection, functioning courts, environmental and game protection, we all have a stake in a well educated populace that will pay enough taxes to support those societal benefits.

10. 11239383 - January 17, 2011 at 10:07 am

Perhaps we should start a movement. Every public postsecondary school in the country must cut back all administrative (and other non-academic support positions such as in HR, etc.) above the academic department to the level at the respective school in FY 99-00. The moneys saved would serve as the logical cut. If anything was left over it would be directed at academic purposes.

Postsecondary schools now have more vice presidents than found at the largest Wall Street institutions (now there is a model on national success.).

Let's go one more step. Every administrator must teach at least one class per academic semester or quarter....and I do not mean a UNIV 101.

11. tcli5026 - January 17, 2011 at 07:45 pm

"I have not yet seen any economic rationale for reducing enrollment. Cost structures in higher ed are largely fixed and shared between programs and students."

In the CSUs, there has traditionally been a heavy, heavy reliance on adjunct faculty (I don't have precise figures, but it was likely in the 30~40% range for many departments).These are "flexible" costs that depend on student enrollment. Fewer students, few adjuncts. Costs go down. My department used to have 13 adjuncts. Since the last round of budget cuts, we were down to three.

12. tcli5026 - January 17, 2011 at 07:46 pm

Sorry, excuse all the typos in the previous post--I wish we could edit.

13. pastatarifi - January 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

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14. shariyat5 - January 18, 2011 at 01:46 pm

How about 79-80% adjunct faculty in community colleges. This scenario is the biggest joke in the history of higher ed. Did they cut all those admin jobs? Of course not! Californias will have to go to private college or out of state for their eductaion in the near future!Turst me- been there- done that!

15. bzlocha - January 20, 2011 at 09:16 am

Where is a problem, there is usually a solution. Californians do not have to go out of state to apply at other universities in other states. CityU of Seattle in Europe offers online scholarships (BSBA & MBA) through the online platform outsourced through Slovakia (Europe), which is an accredited site of CityU (NWCCU). More at www.cityu.eu.

16. rori8529 - January 20, 2011 at 09:38 am

Outside of health care, is there a greater demand for anything outside of a great K-20 education? We speak to the importance of educating our population to grow the economy but we act in reverse. Distance education might be the model to overcome the cost issues but most university systems are unprepared on that front.
The idea that we can reinvest in education after the crisis is like saying we'll put gas in the tank after we win the race.
It seems that the laws of supply and demand are ignores in the one place we all go to learn about them.

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