The administrators of California's state higher-education system awoke Wednesday morning to unexpectedly good news: Against predictions, the ballot measure known as Proposition 30 had been approved by voters on Tuesday, warding off nearly $1-billion in looming cuts in state support.
Administrators reached by telephone were clearly pleased that the "trigger cuts" written into Gov. Jerry Brown's 2013 budget were no longer a worry, thanks to the tax revenue that will be raised by Prop 30. But each was also clear-eyed about the challenges he or she faces in starting to rebuild colleges that have reeled from slashed state support since the economic downturn began.
"We're not kidding ourselves," said Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the University of California system. "This is not a panacea."
The $6-billion that Prop 30's slight increases in the sales tax and in top-bracket income taxes are projected to reap annually will sustain 2012 levels of state support, and even raise budgets for 2013. Ms. Klein said the UC system was counting on an additional $125-million from Sacramento. But at the same time, she said, "it's not like we're throwing up our hands and going back to the good old days. The good old days don't exist."
The cutbacks of the past four years have led to tightened enrollments, reduced class offerings, and sharp fee increases for students—anathema to the spirit of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. The cumulative loss of more than $2.5-billion by the UC system, the Calfornia State University system, and the California Community Colleges has also led to hiring and wage freezes and lost jobs. While belt tightening has brought increased efficiencies at the state's public colleges, it has also contributed to a backlog of deferred maintenance across the three systems that soars into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now state higher-education administrators must survey the damage to access, affordability, and educational excellence, and allocate Prop 30 funds to make repairs and turn the system around.
As the new California Community Colleges chancellor, Brice W. Harris, said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, "We are guardedly optimistic that we're beginning to find a bottom here in California."
"Nearly half a million" of the 2.4 million students attending community colleges have been turned away from full classes over the past four years, Mr. Harris said, so increasing access was a first priority.
About $50-million of the expected $210-million boost coming to the community colleges from Prop 30 will be used to beef up the number of class sections offered. The additional sections are projected to seat 20,000 more students, and many individual community-college districts plan to add new sections for the spring semester.
But restoring access to prerecession levels will very likely take longer than it took to reduce access. The San Diego Community College District cut 2,750 class sections in just the past two years, said the district's president, Constance M. Carroll, who participated in the conference call. With the promise of Prop 30 money, she said, "we'll be able to restore 150 to 180 sections" this spring.
While Prop 30 has state support "headed in the right direction," Mr. Harris said, "we're still going to have students who can't get as many courses as they want, and we're going to have more demand than we have courses available. It will take time."
'Glimmer of Hope'
Over the past year, the Cal State system, under the retiring chancellor Charles B. Reed, announced a series of proactive tactics to deal with budget cuts. Mr. Reed raised tuition by 9 percent for the fall 2012 semester. Thanks to a deal with Sacramento, the passage of Prop 30 means that the 9-percent increase will be returned to students this spring in the form of tuition credits or refunds.
Mr. Reed's office also announced that all admissions for the fall of 2013 would be considered provisional until the fate of Prop 30 was known. Cal State will now admit 10,000 to 15,000 more students across the system, according to a Cal State spokesman, Michael Uhlenkamp, although he added that Cal State campuses would still be turning away qualified students because of reduced support.
"At least there's a glimmer of hope in terms of the refunding and the reinvestment in higher education," Mr. Uhlenkamp said.
But Cal State faces as much as $400-million in maintenance for its facilities that was deferred throughout the budget crisis. "There are holes in roofs that are not being patched because we don't have the money to do it," Mr. Uhlenkamp said.
The UC system averted a double-digit tuition increase that would have been imposed if Prop 30 had failed, but it faces the same deferred-maintenance costs as Cal State does. Administrators at UC also hope to offer a deferred boost to its faculty.
Wage and hiring freezes, program eliminations and consolidations, and the laying off of 4,200 employees have "taken a toll, and not only in numbers but in morale," said Ms. Klein, the spokeswoman. While the UC campuses suffer no shortage of applicants for faculty positions, Ms. Klein acknowledged that "faculty have been poached" by other colleges, and not just because of the more-generous compensation that private colleges can pay.
Increasing state support, at least in the short term, will help there to "be less uncertainty, and we can reinvest in quality," Ms. Klein said.
She echoed other administrators in saying that whatever the challenges they face, they look forward to a return to something like normalcy, even if it's a new, more modest version of normal.
"We're hoping that we're on a more stable financial footing, and we can make long-term budget plans instead of, as in the recent past, where we've had these 11th-hour deals" to close budget gaps, she said. "That's no way to run a university."