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Hardship predicted for students

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to slash higher education funding by about 10% would deny education to tens of thousands of qualified students and have a devastating long-term effect on the state’s economy, university and college leaders said Wednesday.

The governor’s proposed cutbacks for the University of California, California State University and the state’s community college system also would mean reductions in financial aid, fewer classes and a decrease in student services, such as counseling, they said.

“California as a state is at a crossroads,” Cal State Chancellor Charles Reed said during a telephone news conference. “What is California going to look like in the next 20 years? . . . Funding of higher education needs to become more of a priority if California is going to invest in our future.”

A study released Wednesday by the Campaign for College Opportunity concludes that cutbacks earlier in the decade were so severe that the universities still have not rebounded. If Schwarzenegger’s new cuts take effect, the universities might not recover for 10 years, he said.

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With the new round of cuts, for example, UC and Cal State would have to reduce enrollment by 27,000 over the next 2 1/2 years, enough students to populate a campus, the study found.

The study echoes a report released last week by the UC Academic Senate, which concluded that the governor’s plan would reduce the quality of teaching and research at UC and push the 10-campus system closer to privatization by relying heavily on student fees.

To maintain the current level of quality at UC while making up for the cuts, annual student fees would have to jump to $10,500, from $7,511, the UC study found. Within a few years, fees at UC could rise as high as $18,000, it concluded.

“The Schwarzenegger revision accelerates the redefinition of the University of California away from a public university and toward a ‘public-private partnership,’ ” the UC study said. “The university becomes dependent on high student fees for delivering its core educational mission. . . . The university becomes quasi-private or poor -- or perhaps both at once.”

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UC has been suffering for years from what the Academic Senate study called a “hollowing out” because of lack of money. “From a distance, all appears normal; once one goes inside, the damage is clear,” it said. Leaky roofs go unrepaired; valuable faculty leave for better-paying universities; labs are short of equipment and readers to grade assignments; and teaching assistants are in short supply, the UC study said. On at least one campus, faculty office telephones were shut off to save money, and professors there now must use their cellphones.

Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said the governor recognizes that the budget cuts would cause hardship for students as well as the universities and community colleges.

“This is not the governor’s first choice,” she said. “Unfortunately these are difficult but necessary steps to bring spending in line with revenues. The state doesn’t have all the money it needs to fund these programs.”

Many of the problems facing the university are rooted in steep budget cutbacks in 2002 and 2003 that followed the dot-com bust.

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In 2004, the heads of UC and Cal State entered into a “compact” with Schwarzenegger that guaranteed stable funding. But critics say the deal did not provide enough money to recover from the earlier losses and locked the universities into a continual decline.

Schwarzenegger now proposes to break the compact for the first time and cut university funding to a level below that stipulated by the agreement.

Despite the dire situation the universities and community colleges find themselves in, education leaders have been reluctant to challenge the governor. That hesitation was evident during Wednesday’s news conference.

“It’s not our business to tell the state Legislature and the governor what to do,” said UC Provost Wyatt “Rory” Hume, who oversees university operations.

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Hume later said in an e-mail that he sees the university’s role as helping policymakers understand the consequences of the choices they face. “We believe the implications of disinvestment in higher education are very serious for California,” he said.

Diane Woodruff, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, said the governor’s proposed cut would mean those campuses would not be able to provide classes for more than 50,000 students. An additional 18,500 would not receive financial aid.

The cutbacks would most affect low-income, first-generation and nonwhite students, who generally depend more on university services, she said.

“If we want to turn the economy around, this is the time to maintain our investment in higher education,” she said.

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The higher education leaders said they were concerned that the cutbacks would hamper California’s economic recovery by depriving employers of well-educated workers, who are already in short supply.

“By 2025. if we continue on this same course of cumulative budget cuts on a cyclical basis, the California workforce will be 3 million short and California will not be competitive,” Cal State Chancellor Reed said.

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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