Rochelle Corros is passionate when she speaks about her college major: Recreation and leisure studies is not just fun and games, she says with conviction. Graduates run city and state parks, recreation departments, hospital clinics, theaters and cruise lines. They help keep kids off the streets.
So the Cal State Dominguez Hills senior was floored by an August letter from administrators telling her that admissions to the program would be suspended and courses slashed as the campus grappled with steep budget reductions.
Corros, 25, had to scramble to replace one canceled class this fall and no longer knows if she will be able to complete her studies by next winter as planned.
“It’s really stressful and really frustrating,” she said. “Some college students may just want to get by, but others want to plan their education semester by semester and have an eye on a deadline. . . . Now I don’t know if any of the classes I need are going to be offered.”
Corros is hardly alone as she tries to plan for an uncertain future. These days, the California State University system -- the nation’s largest with 23 campuses and 450,000 students -- seems like a ship unmoored. With its lifeline of state funding cut more than half a billion dollars this fiscal year, Cal State, along with other California schools, has been unable to avoid unprecedented student fee hikes, staff and faculty furloughs, and deep reductions in enrollment.
Many campuses are planning for historic program reductions that could greatly narrow academic options, alter the career plans of thousands of students and, ultimately, further harm California’s shaky economy, experts say.
The Cal State cutbacks are not uniform. Each campus was allocated reductions based on various criteria, including enrollment. Allowances were made for smaller campuses and those with large proportions of financial aid students.
Among recent cost-saving measures across the university, Cal State Stanislaus is canceling its winter term and will move next year to a more traditional two-semester schedule. The school, in Turlock, near Modesto, cut 50 part-time faculty and 192 course offerings this fall; several hundred more classes will probably be eliminated in the spring.
Humboldt State closed its popular Natural History Museum. It was the only such museum in largely rural Humboldt County and attracted thousands of visitors annually. The campus is the county’s second-largest employer; the economics department estimates that twice monthly staff and faculty furloughs have sapped the local economy of $8.6 million.
Administrators at Dominguez Hills closed the student newspaper and may eliminate some small academic programs, including music, art and Chicano studies.
The Cal State system often does not get the same attention as the University of California, but in the state’s master plan for higher education, Cal State is the workhorse of undergraduate academics, producing 60% of public school bachelor’s degrees, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“It serves a more diverse population than UC; it’s more representative,” said Hans Johnson, an associate director at the institute. “It’s very large, very important and a key component in producing our workforce.”
California already faces a skills gap, with demand for educated workers outstripping supply. Cal State’s cuts will only exacerbate the problem, Johnson said. The system reduced enrollment by 4,000 students in the fall and expects to cut 40,000 more in the next two years. The state will suffer from those decisions, he said.
The following student, faculty member and administrator are among those on the front lines:
Corros, of Lakewood, earned an associate’s degree in liberal studies from Cypress College before transferring to Dominguez Hills last year. But for as long as she can remember, she has loved spending time with children, finding their energy and creativity an inspiration.
She worked in a program helping autistic children learn academic and play skills and decided that recreation studies would provide opportunities beyond the typical 9-to-5 desk job. It didn’t matter to her that it wasn’t a big program at the campus, unlike business, for example.
“When you think about recreation, you’re not going to think high enrollment. But if you say it’s not important to the world, that’s wrong,” she said.
At a meeting early in the school year, lower division recreation students were advised to consider changing majors because it was unclear which classes would be available, she said. She had just enough credits to continue.
The uncertainty has added to the usual college stress of tests, homework and squeezing in a social life. Corros, who says she was not serious about her studies in high school, is now vice president of the campus recreation club and has spoken about the plight of recreation students at a community forum. She also addressed a recent meeting of the Cal State Board of Trustees, urging them to save academic programs.
Corros receives financial aid, and her parents, who attended the forum, struggle to provide support. Part of her drive to get her degree on time is to find a job and begin helping them, she says.
“For my parents to actually see me . . . choose a major, go to classes and take things seriously, I’m quite proud of that,” she said. “Now, this is happening.”
As a precocious 6-year-old in Italy, Giulio Della Rocca earned the nickname “Prof” from his friends because he was the go-to guy for help with homework. Teaching has always been his dream.
When he earned a PhD in mathematics from UCLA, he thought he was prepared for a secure future. He’s been a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach since 2001. But lately, when he hugs his young daughter, he wonders how he’ll continue to be able to provide for her.
This fall, the university canceled one of his math classes, cutting his income by 20%. Like other faculty and staff, Della Rocca also must take two unpaid furlough days a month, lowering his pay 10% more. His mortgage and bills, he points out, did not drop commensurately.
“Now I have to get money from an equity line of credit or I literally wouldn’t be able to pay all my bills and [would] be in jeopardy of losing my house,” he said. “This is what the budget cuts are doing.”
Della Rocca, 47, is trying to find outside income to fill the gaps, even asking a contractor friend about odd jobs, he said. His family tries to stretch their budget: They walk or use bicycles for errands. They forgo parties and movies and go to the beach for entertainment. They grow tomatoes, carrots, celery and cucumbers to save on grocery bills.
Della Rocca’s math classes cover basic skills, and the cuts come at a time when the number of students needing such courses is rising, he said. His four remaining classes are full, and he turns no students away.
The furloughs have disrupted his life and those of his students, who are losing momentum and motivation with shifting class schedules, he said. Because classroom hours have been reduced, some topics can’t be covered and students can’t be tested on the material.
He tries to ease the effect on his students. “I usually do some work and increase the number of handouts for students so that even though they see me less, they continue to have work to do,” he said.
Della Rocca said he also tries to be optimistic that the budget crisis will end quickly and the lost funding be restored. “I’m hopeful they will find a way.”
A provost’s angst
In his seventh-floor office with a view of the San Gabriel Mountains, Provost Marten L. denBoer is trying to close a $30-million budget shortfall at Cal Poly Pomona.
That will involve eliminating many programs, a process he says is like triage: Resources must be focused on programs that get the most bang for the buck, using criteria such as the number of students enrolled, the number of graduates, whether the program serves a unique function and its effectiveness in placing students into the workforce.
Engineering, for example, is a core part of the school’s mission and is not threatened; nor is architecture, which is one of only two such programs in the Cal State system and is nationally recognized. But plenty of smaller programs, such as philosophy and history, may be on the chopping block.
These are the toughest, most wrenching decisions he will make in his academic career, said DenBoer, who came to Pomona last year. He said he wants consensus from faculty and deans on the cost-cutting measures, but knows the actions aren’t likely to win him applause.
He said administrative functions will be reviewed and probably pared, but he rejects the argument that significant cuts can be made in that area. “The lights have to stay on, and someone has to maintain the computer system,” he said. “These are people who work very hard and have to be properly compensated.”
Cal Poly will not emerge undamaged, he said.
“Faculty express concerns about whether we are changing the nature of education at Cal Poly Pomona, and my honest answer is that it’s going to be very difficult to reverse these changes,” he said. “The people of California have made the decision that they don’t want to invest in higher education as they have in the past. That means we will be a smaller university and will not be able to offer all the programs we’ve been offering.”
Born in France to Dutch parents, DenBoer, 59, grew up mostly in Canada before earning a PhD in physics and serving in various academic posts at New York institutions, including associate provost in the City University system. While at Queens College, he had to consolidate academic programs during the financial crisis that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
The economy and enrollments there eventually recovered. But he doesn’t expect that Cal State will ever completely recoup its losses from this downturn.
He recalls the time, while training for the New York City Marathon, that he was struck by a car and spent three months in the hospital with a broken neck and legs so shattered that his doctors expected he would never walk again. He recovered, but the experience of helplessness and dependence led him to switch from research to more active academic roles.
Now DenBoer hopes that his legacy at Pomona will be one of helping keep the school alive.
“I think we’re in a better position than some campuses because we have a pretty well-defined and supported mission,” he said. “We’ll survive and do well, but the future will not be the same.”