Sacramento—Budget cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could prevent hundreds of thousands of Californians from attending college this fall, higher education officials told a legislative committee Monday.
The executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, Diana Fuentes-Michel, said the Republican governor's plan to phase out Cal Grant aid to lower income, college-bound students could keep more than 200,000 out of classes.
"If these students cannot afford to attend college, they will face the worst job market in decades," she told a two-house committee that is trying to eliminate a state budget deficit now pegged at $24.3 billion.
Karen Humphrey, executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, urged lawmakers to scale back rather than eliminate Cal Grants. She suggested temporarily lowering grants for students attending private schools and raising the grade point average required to qualify for the aid.
She also suggested phasing in temporary fee increases at community colleges to ease some program cuts.
"CPEC doesn't normally recommend fee increases like this," she said. "But the other options on your table could be worse."
Schwarzenegger is proposing to cut $2.75 billion from higher education through June 30, 2010. That includes community colleges, University of California and California State University systems.
The state will get $537 million from the federal stimulus package to offset some of those cuts, and the administration anticipates California will receive more aid, said H.D Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.
Schwarzenegger is also proposing to save another $173 million in the coming fiscal year by eliminating new Cal Grants.
The California State University's chancellor, Charles Reed, said the cuts proposed for his 23-campus system were the equivalent of cutting its enrollment by 60,000.
"That is impossible," he told the committee.
He said student funding at CSU has dropped 25 percent over the last decade. The university has also frozen administrative salaries and limited travel and purchases to hold down expenses, he added.
"Now we have to do something about the number of faculty and staff we have," he said. "Our No. 1 goal is to offer as many classes and sections as we possibly can and secondly protect as many jobs as we can."
Reed and University of California President Mark Yudof urged lawmakers to let university officials figure out how to impose any cuts the Legislature adopts instead of mandating cuts in certain areas.
"It's very important for us to have flexibility," Yudof said. "There are things we probably should have eliminated years ago. For a variety of reasons they have not been."
He said the cuts would force employee furloughs and the cancellation of some programs.
"We've got to arrest this race to the bottom...," he added. "This will be, in many ways, an unraveling of a master plan (for higher education) that California adopted about 50 years ago."
Jack Scott, a former state senator who now serves as chancellor of the California community college system, urged lawmakers to lower enrollment requirements, saying that forcing the system's 110 colleges to accept the same number of students while absorbing budget cuts could bankrupt some smaller schools.
He also urged lawmakers to keep community college budget cuts proportional to the schools' share of funding under Proposition 98, the minimum kindergarten-to-community-college funding requirements set by voters in 1988.
"When you look at Proposition 98, we normally get 11 percent of the revenue," he said. "I don't think we should get more than 11 percent of the cuts."
Leo Martinez, acting chancellor and dean at the University of California's Hastings College of Law, urged legislators to reject Schwarzenegger's proposal to cut off all state support for the 131-year-old school.
The state's investments in Hastings have been repaid many times over by the contributions made by its graduates, who include former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Martinez said.
"I am confident that in this year's entering class there are many other possible Willie Browns, and in coming years there will be many, many other possible Willie Browns," he said.