California students see college doors closing as money woes shrink access

September 13, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jeanette Miller of Millbrae is an 18-year-old bassoon player with a lot of ambition but not much cash.

So when she thought about college, she turned to the public higher education system in California. As the nation's largest such system, it has for decades managed to earn a prestigious reputation and to fulfill its mission to make a low-cost college education available to any high school graduate in the state.

What she found surprised and dismayed her. Two years into a declining state economy, a malaise that set the stage this summer for the worst state fiscal crisis in U.S. history, the long-prized California dream of educational opportunity for all has changed -- some say drastically.

These changes, which include substantial fee increases, less financial aid and restricted enrollments, are raising questions about whether low-income students such as Ms. Miller will be able to afford higher education and or will be left out.

As the state's economy has foundered, funding for the higher education system has failed to keep pace with enrollment. As a result, the state's four-year colleges and universities have raised fees by a dramatic 60 percent in the past two years, including new increases signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson at 1:45 a.m. Sept. 2. For the first time, the four-year colleges have begun to turn away qualified students.

Thousands of course offerings have been eliminated systemwide, more than 2,000 members of the staff and faculty have been laid off, and hundreds of faculty positions remain vacant for lack of funds. Four campuses in the state university system are not even accepting new students for next spring because they don't have the money to hire enough teachers.

At San Francisco State University, where Ms. Miller is enrolled as a freshman music major, fees jumped from $780 in 1990-91 to $1,308 this year.

(Under the California system, the state does not charge residents "tuition"; the cost of instruction is paid by the state. Fees are used to cover other expenses. Non-resident students pay tuition.)

The cost, which does not include books and living expenses, is still a bargain by private college standards, but Ms. Miller finds it a strain.

"My mom doesn't have much money," she said. Even with a loan and a work-study job, she worried about making ends meet. She paced the campus recently waiting to inquire about a financial aid grant.

The pain is being felt at all levels of a three-tiered higher education system outlined by legislators in 1960 in what is known as the "master plan" for accessible and affordable education.

At the top of the pyramid is the nine-campus University of California, a world-renowned research institution that has been home to the cream of the state's high school population -- the top 12.5 percent.

For decades, a place for every eligible high school graduate has been found at one of the University of California campuses. As of 1993, students will be turned away for the first time, said William Baker, vice president for budget and university relations.

"We expect to have a dramatic decrease in enrollment in 1993," he said. "California State University is in the same position. That means losing thousands of bright young kids who will not be able to find a place."

Fees at the University of California have risen by almost 60 percent in the past two years, to the current rate of $3,036 a year.

The state university system is the middle tier, open to the top one-third of high school graduates. To cope with budget shortfalls, the administration is considering merging departments and eliminating programs. Faculty members have been asked to consider using television as a teaching aid, a concept that is an anathema to many.

At the bottom tier is the 107-campus community college system, which is open to all high school graduates. Last year, the two-year community college system enrolled 1.5 million students but was forced to turn away more than 100,000.

"We're under unbelievable enrollment pressure," said David Mertes, chancellor of the California community college system.

Under the new state budget, fees at the community colleges will increase to $10 a credit unit, or $30 a class, still among the lowest in the nation, according to Mr. Mertes.

The question of access to education is of particular concern in this state, where immigrants from foreign countries and other states continue to pour in. The state's population expanded by 6.1 million between 1980 and 1990 to reach a staggering 29.8 million. Education that is almost free at the community college level, and affordable at four-year institutions, has been seen as a irreplaceable tool for training and integrating the state's ethnic groups.

Access to education also has served its time-honored function as a means to a better life.

"We have been the gatekeeper for socioeconomic mobility," said Barry Munitz, chancellor of the 20-campus California State University system. "If you remove the state's ability to provide access to education, you tear up the tickets to the American dream."

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