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Budget Cuts, Tuition Hikes Jeopardize Quality of Higher Education in California

August 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Students preparing for college this fall are facing higher tuition rates as their schools face budget cuts in this troubled economy. Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the fallout in California's public universities.

JEFFREY BROWN: College students around the nation are preparing to go back to school soon, facing rising tuitions and a particular hit on public universities from budget cuts and a weak economy.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the fallout in California.

SPENCER MICHELS: The signs are everywhere. California’s vaunted higher education system is broken. Recently regarded as one of the top systems in the nation, California’s public colleges offered places for all levels of students at affordable rates.

But, today, at San Francisco State University, with nearly 30,000 students, and at all 23 of the California state university campuses, the squeeze is on.

MONICA POPESCU, college student: It’s really hard to get into the classes you need.

TIFFANY TONG, college student: I took a math class last semester. It was an online math course. There are over 200 students, but we only have two to three teaching assistants to grade our homework. So it’s ridiculous.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nationally, higher education funding is expected to drop $5 billion this year. In California, such cuts affect both the elite University of California, or U.C., system, with 187,000 students, and the more broad-based California State University system, or CSU, with 420,000, the largest university system in the country.

To offset declining state support in a poor economy, CSU trustees recently raised tuition 12 percent, on top of a 10 percent raise earlier, jumping tuition to about $6,000 a year. Though nearly half the students in the system receive financial aid, for the others, the raises have been serious.

Robert Corrigan has been president of San Francisco State for 24 years, and he’s never seen it this bad.

ROBERT CORRIGAN, San Francisco State University: What I think we’re seeing is, increasingly, the middle class being priced out of campuses like San Francisco State.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Corrigan says he does understand why college budgets have to take cuts, like everything else.

ROBERT CORRIGAN: Who can you really blame, you come down to it? OK, legislatures, a large member of them are graduates from the California State University generally. But they’re also committed to a number of other things within California, which is, you know, what about the health care? What do we do with the needs of 5-year-old children or the senior citizens that need services?

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, he says state universities like his were designed to attract a wide, diverse student body. Nearly anyone could attend.

ROBERT CORRIGAN: We can’t provide that access any longer, and we can’t — we can’t project that we will continue to have the quality faculty that we need in order to educate them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Phil Klasky teaches ethnic studies at S.F. State, and he’s seen the results of the cutbacks.

PHIL KLASKY, San Francisco State University: I can tell you there’s a big difference between me teaching a class of 35 students, as opposed to 60 students. Quality of education suffers.

SPENCER MICHELS: And so does the physical plant. Roofs that need replacing are left that way. Tiles fall off the ceiling in creative arts classrooms, where the faculty has tried to patch the problem, though not very well.

The cutbacks and the tuition increases have been met over the past two years by a series of demonstrations on several campuses. But they seem to have had little effect.

Ethnic studies teacher Klasky, who has taken part in the protests, lays the blame for poor state funding on inequities in the tax system.

PHIL KLASKY: Once the public understands fully the impacts of these cuts on education, they will rise up and demand that we stop giving away these huge tax cuts to the richest Californians and the richest corporations, and California can return to become a model for the nation.

SPENCER MICHELS: But others believe the situation is more complex, and perhaps more long-lasting.

The University of California at Davis is part of the 10-campus U.C. system, the jewel in the state’s education crown that includes Berkeley and UCLA, ranked among the top public universities in the world. Cutbacks and tuition hikes here have jolted Davis chancellor Linda Katehi, who is trying to preserve her school’s high reputation.

She thinks the state legislature’s failure to fully fund education reflects a shift in values.

LINDA KATEHI, University of California, Davis: What is happening with higher education, that it is not anymore as high in the public’s mind and not as high on their priorities list. And as we deal with an economy that is not going very well, I think the public worries about their well-being, about their health care, about their ability to live well after they retire.

SPENCER MICHELS: With undergraduate tuition at U.C. now more than $11,000 a year, up nearly 10 percent, on top of an 8 percent jump last year, many students are hurting.

To lessen the crisis, and to increase revenue, U.C. Davis has promoted its summer school program, where the classes are smaller. It has encouraged admission of international students, who pay high tuition. It has made some administrative consolidations to reduce costs. It has partnered with private enterprise, rather than using scarce state money, to construct a housing and educational village on campus.

And it has just launched a drive to raise a billion dollars from private and alumni sources, a large sum for a public university. But the chancellor says this is all part of the new world, which includes higher tuition costs.

LINDA KATEHI: We are making higher education more of a private good. We are asking the individual families and the individual students to pay for their own education. The time when the state was the main contributor to the cost of higher education is gone. And I don’t necessarily see us going back to that.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s because getting more money from the beleaguered state seems like a long shot, given the legislature’s refusal to raise taxes.

Regent Russell Gould, former president of the board and former finance director for the state, said, in the end, a tuition increase was the only alternative.

RUSSELL GOULD, University of California: The regents had to accept an increase in fees just out of fundamental financial realities.

SPENCER MICHELS: That increase has had real consequences for parents like these attending freshman orientation week on campus this summer.

Mayur Patel, who has a son starting Davis, runs a small hotel in Ventura, Calif. He says the tuition increases have kept him working overtime and created real hardships.

MAYUR PATEL, parent: In August, we were planning to take a vacation, mini-vacation. As soon as we heard that it’s going about nine to 10 percent, we stopped that. We canceled that. Last time I took time off work was June 4, 2006. That was my dad’s 50th wedding anniversary.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even with the tuition increase, regent Gould worries about the future.

RUSSELL GOULD: I think the university is at risk, in terms of its quality. The risk is if the lack of confidence is created in the university, and faculty starts believing that this is not a sustainable enterprise, that California’s given up on it, I think you could see an erosion of the kind of talent that we’re able to bring to the university.

SPENCER MICHELS: University officials at all levels, eager to preserve their schools’ reputations, are reluctant to say the educational quality has already dropped, but they admit it’s in jeopardy and that major changes are coming.