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California’s Higher-Education Disaster

There’s no doubt that the ongoing crisis of governance in California and resulting disinvestment in the University of California system is deplorable. But this recent Washington Post dispatch from UC-Berkeley doesn’t exactly paint a picture of a campus in deep crisis:

Star faculty take mandatory furloughs. Classes grow perceptibly larger each year. Roofs leak; e-mail crashes. One employee mows the entire campus. Wastebaskets are emptied once a week. Some professors lack telephones. … The state share of Berkeley’s operating budget has slipped since 1991 from 47 percent to 11 percent. Tuition has doubled in six years, and the university is admitting more students from out of state willing to pay a premium for a Berkeley degree … the number of students for every faculty member has risen from 15 to 17 in five years. Many classes are oversubscribed, leaving students to scramble for alternatives or postpone graduation, a dilemma more commonly associated with community college. … Berkeley’s overall budget continues to rise modestly from year to year. Total university revenue rose from $1.7-billion in fiscal 2007 to $2-billion in 2010.

Reliable email is free and I assume Berkeley professors own cell phones like everyone else. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that small increases in class size negatively affect learning for the kind of cream-of-the-crop college students who attend Berkeley. Over 90 percent of Berkeley students graduate from the university. If Berkeley’s star professors are lured away to Stanford, it’s bad for the university but not necessarily bad for America, particularly if (as is frequently the case) those professors teach few if any undergraduates. They’ll be the same people doing the same thing at another university an hour away.

Again, none of this changes the fact that if California were governed in a remotely competent or rational fashion it would be investing more money in UC, not less. I don’t mean to minimize the issue. But this and similar articles like Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece suggest, in Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgenau’s words, a university that is “threatened” but “not in decline.” If wastebaskets and lawn mowing are big problems, your problems aren’t that big.

Meanwhile, this chart shows the annual number of students transferring from California community colleges to the California State University system over the last five years:

The California public higher education system is built like a three-layer ziggurat with a wide base and narrow top. In round numbers, every year about 400,000 students graduate from high school in California and half of them immediately go to college in-state. 30,000 top students are allowed to go to a UC campus. Another 50,000 or so enroll in the middle-tier California State University campus. The remaining 120,000 go to community college. In other words, the system is designed such that the median California high school graduate looking to enroll in a public higher education institution is obligated to start at a community college. There is no place for her, at first, in a four-year in-state public university.

For the system to function effectively, therefore, students who start at community colleges need to be able to transfer into four-year universities to complete a bachelor’s degree. Usually, that means California State, which has historically taken more than four community college transfers for every one who is admitted to the more selective UC. As the chart shows, as recently as three years ago, CSU was taking 55,000 community college transfers a year. Two years ago, that number dropped by 2,000. In 2010, it dropped by another 12,000 students.

It is not the case that there were suddenly 12,000 fewer community college students who needed to pursue a four-year degree, or wanted to, or were qualified to. The CSU system did not shut down any of its campuses or shrink in size. What happened was that the system was buffeted by budget cuts and so began to clamp down on transfer admissions in all kinds of ways like restricting Spring semester transfers and raising GPA requirements and changing geographic criteria for which students are allowed to enroll in which campuses.

As a result, even as the President of the United States is making college completion a national priority and imploring people to go to college, and the economy continues to stagnate and good jobs remain scarce and good jobs that don’t require a college degree remain even scarcer, 12,000 mostly low-income or minority students—that’s three times the size of the entire Berkeley freshman class—didn’t have the luxury of being unhappy about un-mown lawns and un-emptied wastebaskets and marginally larger small classes taught by somewhat disgruntled brilliant professors at a four-year public university because they weren’t allowed to attend those universities at all.

What did they do instead? Nobody knows, exactly. But consider that transfers from California community colleges to the University of Phoenix have increased by over 300 percent in the last ten years.

Meanwhile, things in the community-colleges system are even worse. To transfer from a community college to a university (or to be denied such a transfer), you have to be able to enroll in a community college in the first place. The chart below shows enrollment in California community colleges since 2004:

From 2004 – 05 to the 2008 – 09 academic year, enrollment in California community colleges rose steadily. At that point, officials projected more healthy increases on the order of five percent a year, which was reasonable given that the population of California was growing and four-year colleges were becoming more expensive and also there was a gigantic terrible recession underway that was throwing people out of jobs by the millions. Under those circumstances, its absolutely crucial to maintain access to affordable two-year colleges that help displaced workers retrain for new jobs and give economically vulnerable students a chance to earn a degree.

Instead, budget cuts caused enrollment in California community colleges to decline by over 400,000 students. That’s more than the total number of undergraduates enrolled in the entire California State University system.

This is, in short, a completely avoidable public-policy catastrophe that will have lasting negative effects on California and the nation as a whole. Yet the lion’s share of national media coverage of California higher education budget cuts has focused on marginal problems among the most privileged people.

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