Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., Betty Duong began translating for her immigrant parents from the time she could speak in complete sentences.
Doing so helped her family navigate daily necessities like reading and paying utility bills. Through her, they also dealt with English-speaking bureaucrats at hospitals, social service agencies, and courts. Family friends and neighbors often tapped Duong’s bilingual skills as well.
But the duties made Duong burn out, rather than engage, in school throughout her K-12 years. It was not until a community college class unexpectedly engrossed her that she realized the benefits education could usher into the life of herself and others.
As long as it remains accessible and affordable, that is.
Today, Duong is among thousands of California students worried about vanishing college affordability and access, especially for historically under-represented and marginalized populations.
Students and faculty throughout California are grappling with the effects of draconian state cuts to postsecondary education that have topped more than $1 billion in the last year.
As the state’s fiscal crisis has deepened, its three major higher education institutions — the University of California, The California State University, and California Community Colleges — have cut faculty pay, laid off staff, and reduced the number of course offerings. The unavailability of courses is forcing some students to take longer than expected to graduate. Coinciding with the belt-tightening, officials have raised mandatory student fees again, causing students to mount protests and occupy campus buildings.
Ever-soaring costs alongside ever-shrinking classes and services lead observers to fear that uncertainties may become norms, permanently denigrating higher education in the nation’s most populous state.
Says Dr. Sandra Graham, a University of California, Los Angeles professor of psychological studies in education: “It has become a sham.”
Misleading by Example
Dr. Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, vice provost of California State University, Sacramento, believes the outcome of state-budget battles can influence what happens elsewhere. “Whatever we develop, other states will try convincing their legislatures to do the same. It’s unfortunately sending the message that, by continuing to cut at the state level, then we will continue to cut at the campus level and just deal with it.”
The leaders of the three-tiered education system have urged legislators to restore public appropriations to their schools in the next budget cycle, and they appear to have Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as an ally for increased funding.
“It takes decades to create great universities,” UC President Mark Yudof said at a legislative hearing in December. “But they can be destroyed in a relatively short amount of time.”
Faculty jobs have also fallen to the budget ax. Last fall, the Cal State system employed 2,133 fewer lecturers — or 16 percent less — than it did in fall 2008, according to the California Faculty Association. Seven of Cal State’s 23 campuses lost 20 percent or more of their lecturers.
Although typically not on the tenure track, lecturers comprise about 55 percent of all Cal State faculty as recently as 2008. Some are Ph.D.s; others are not. Hired for their expertise in a particular field, lecturers teach but usually are not obligated to research or publish.
For the remaining Cal State faculty, mandatory furloughs have accompanied pay cuts. Dr. Robert McNamara and his colleagues are required to specify days and times in which they won’t hold class — even if class is regularly scheduled that day — or office hours or attend department meetings or campus events.
A Sonoma State University political science professor, McNamara notices “my students aren’t doing as well, and their research isn’t very deep because we have less contact with each other.”
He periodically tells students to cross out topics on the course syllabus that he covered in years past but no longer does, because of reduced class time. “I want them to see what they’re missing.”
McNamara and others agree the harried climate has cornered them into using multiple-choice exams more often.
Meanwhile, administrators at all campuses have cancelled countless courses before the start of a term, only to reinstate some of the courses at the last minute, sending instructors and students scrambling.
Such frustration and low morale push many faculty to scout out-of-state jobs or consider pitches from peer institutions eager to pluck “superstar” professors, especially if they are Black or Latino because of the scarcity of them at top-tier research universities. UC officials, for instance, say a “brain drain” has not yet occurred, although they are aware of ongoing courtships.
Unlike Cal State, most UC faculty have not trimmed instruction time, but Graham observes, “If anything, I’m working harder, hustling.”
She has crafted a multiyear grant proposal for nonuniversity funds to support her graduate students. She worries that continued UCLA cuts will strand students crucial in conducting her research, which examines peer relations and racial tolerance among youth.
The Minority Report
Educators are already seeing the state’s budget problems squeezing a disproportionate share of students of color. As an example, the University of California, Santa Cruz designates one complex of dorms and apartments for ethnic-themed housing. Minorities regularly fill about 45 percent of those 600 beds as they do university enrollment.
Because of contract cancellations, the complex had 73 vacancies between the fall and winter quarters — five times the usual rate. Officials say nearly all those cancellations came from minorities who, because of job layoffs in their families or other financial strain, sought cheaper housing or dropped out of school.
University of California, Davis student Damonde Hatfield, however, wants to move on campus. He has applied for a resident adviser job in a dorm because it would entitle him to free room and board.
A junior majoring in sociology and African-American studies, Hatfield struggles to stay afloat financially despite sharing an apartment with three roommates. He works at the campus activities and recreation center to supplement his loans and grants.
His grandmother is paying his midyear fee hike of $585 because it’s beyond the means of his mother, who does office work, and his father, a construction laborer. The undergraduate fee increase, the eighth since 2002, is part of a 32-percent spike being phased in at UC.
By fall, mandatory systemwide UC fees for in-state undergraduates will run $10,302, excluding housing or books. The price is less than the retail cost of many academically selective public universities nationally. However, Californians are upset because the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which in 1960 articulated the missions of higher education institutions, calls for a tuition-free system charging only nominal fees for sports and other non-instructional offerings.
Meanwhile, California State University, Stanislaus student Brittany Graham’s fees have skyrocketed 53 percent from her freshman year to $4,840.
Brittany studies nursing. The national dearth of nurses convinced the fifth-year senior to stay the course. “At least I’ll have a job at the end.”
Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, says because the California Master Plan became a model for so many other states in shaping school systems, close attention is being paid nationally to what occurs in California in the coming months. “The rising costs are telling students and families on society’s margins that they don’t have a place in California higher education. That is the message being sent to the general public all over the country,” Espinosa says.
Costs aside, Californians face additional difficulties gaining entrance into UC and Cal State in the near future and perhaps beyond.
UC officials plan to turn over 2,200 student slots for this fall to out-of-state and international students, who pay much higher fees than in-state residents, unless state allocations dramatically improve soon. UC enrolls 14,000 in-state students for whom it receives no state support. Meanwhile, Cal State officials plan to enroll 40,000 fewer students over the next two years.
For his part, Schwarzenegger says he wants to reverse the damage being wrought by budget cuts on California’s higher education system.
“We can no longer afford to cut higher education,” Schwarzenegger said last month during his State of the State address. “The priorities have become out of whack over the years.”
“Thirty years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons. Today almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future,” he said, adding that he wants to lower prison spending through privatization.
Schwarzenegger proposed limiting prison spending to 7 percent of the state’s general fund while spending no less than 10 percent on higher education.
“Choosing universities over prisons,” Schwarzenegger said, “this is a historic and transforming realignment of California’s priorities.”
Still, there’s no guarantee Schwarzenegger, a lame-duck governor, will succeed in winning over lawmakers. If he doesn’t, he has proposed that the matter be put to voters.
That means immediate relief for higher education is nowhere in sight. The cost-cutting measures and their impact on minority students trouble Duong, now a third-year UC Davis law student.
To afford college, she has worked as a make-up artist and trimmed expenses by living with family friends during some semesters. She supplements her law school loans with jobs as a UC Davis research assistant and teaching assistant in Asian-American studies.
She credits higher education with giving her career prospects and a sense of self-assurance and belonging that eluded her in childhood.
Duong earned a bachelor’s in Asian-American studies from the University of California, Berkeley. “Getting my education has empowered me, made me feel privileged.”
But she cannot ignore the fact that hardly any of her low- and moderate-income peers in San Jose hold a degree from any of the 10 UC campuses. It doesn’t take her long, either, to count the few who attended, much less graduated, from Cal State.
And considering the opposite directions that costs and accessibility appear to be heading, Duong surmises that even fewer young people of future generations may have those opportunities.
“I really don’t know how new students are going to be able to manage this burden.”