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Cal-State: More Desirable, Less Affordable In Bad Economy

Alexandria Yeager |
April 27, 2011 | 12:14 p.m. PDT


Liberty Zabala, a senior at California State University Northridge, has spent the last four years pursuing a journalism degree, but this time next year she’ll still be in school taking classes. Budget cuts have forced her school to cut courses – courses necessarily for graduation – Zabala said, and because the class she needs is full, she is waiting until next year to take it.

Cal State Northridge (Creative Commons)
Cal State Northridge (Creative Commons)

“They only offer one section for certain classes, which is not enough for all the journalism students,” she said. Zabala said she needs to take Jour 415, a television news package class. But, only one section of the class is offered – with a maximum enrollment of just 20 students.

Fewer class offerings is just one problem plaguing the Cal State system. Class sizes are also increasing, as is tuition, and more and more faculty and staff are getting pink slips. Cal State, already suffering from state funding cuts in recent years, also faces $500 million in cuts under Brown’s proposed budget ($1 billion if the $14 billion in tax extensions doesn’t pass). That amounts to an 18 percent reduction in funding. The Cal State system would then only receive $2.2 billion a year in funding from the state. This is equal to funds given by the state during the 1999–2000 academic year. However, almost 70,000 more students attend the school now then they did over a decade ago.

Around 36,000 students attend Cal State Northridge, and they, too, are paying more for their education. Provost Harold Hellenbrand says that student fees in 2005 were around $3,400. Next year they will be $5,500 a year. Also, faculty at the school are being fired. Around five years ago the ratio of students to teachers was 21:1, Hellenbrand said. Today the ratio is about 25:1. He said with more cuts, more jobs are at risk. The faculty count is about 1,700. Hellenbrand said they probably won’t cut any tenure-track positions, but he suspects that anywhere between 100 to 200 teachers may have to be let go, increasing the student-teacher ratio even further.

And although budget cuts are already increasing tuition and decreasing faculty numbers, Hellenbrand said that for Cal State Northridge, $34 million of the proposed half a billion dollar cut will affect the campus. And to an extent, the school is prepared for these additional cuts.

“We anticipated a lot of the budget stuff about five, six years ago and made plans to deal with it at that point. We are also a larger campus, which gives us more elasticity than smaller campuses,” he said.

Hellenbrand said, however, that the additional $500 million in cuts without tax extensions, is going too far. “The first $500 million [the school] can more or less find a way to deal with. The rest is a challenge.”

Students also have these concerns and, like Zabala, some say cutbacks are forcing them to go extra semesters because classes aren’t being offered.

“As an art major, I’ve definitely been struggling to get into my classes. It’s been the second year in a row that I’ve been wanting to take one class and I still haven’t been able to get into it and I’m already a junior,” Alejandro Hernandez, a third year student double majoring in Chicano studies and graphic design said. “It’s no longer four years in this university. Students are taking five or six years to graduate.” Hernandez said he will most likely have to go to school an additional year.

Although some students say they must attend school longer, Hellenbrand said it is still too early to tell the extent of students truly needing to attend school longer due to lack of classes, but that time may not be a long way off. He said the one trend at the school is that the graduation rate has continued to go up and that the unit load students carry each semester continues to go up. “As courses become a scarcer commodity, people seem to be hoarding them more, and you don’t know when the breaking point is going to be reached.” When that point will finally be reached to actually delay a significant number of people from graduating when they want, Hellenbrand said, “I don’t think we’ve hit that yet. We might hit it fairly soon.”

Class cuts are also affecting students in other ways.

Hernandez said with fewer sections being offered for courses, creating a schedule becomes a challenge. “I find myself having the most ridiculous schedules. Last semester, I had a class at 8 in the morning and then one that finished at 9 o’clock that night, and I had a huge gap in the middle.”

However, not all students see this as a problem. Roxanna Trejo is studying Spanish and says her major is so small that for years only one section of each class has been offered. She is more concerned with other issues.

“Obviously the price going up is affecting me. Tuition, every year it’s going up more and my financial aid has been cut as well,” Trejo said.

However, Hellenbrand noted that the “fees have gone up, but they haven’t gone up in compensation for the way that the state dollars have gone down.”

Hernandez is frustrated with his school, “Every year we pay a fee increase, we pay it in hopes that something will be fixed, but the students are finding out that we’re paying all this money and yet we still come into the university and we’re having our faculty fired, they’re still cutting classes.”

Hellenbrand understands this frustration. “I think everybody feels that they’re paying more and getting less variety which is accurate. And they’re paying more and the results they’re getting from it are remaining constant, which is a degree.” Hellenbrand said most of the cuts to classes have been to electives. Also, student aid has been cut and is now only given to students for up to 150 credits instead of 180. “The irony is, and it’s a term people don’t want to hear, but it’s made the taking of courses more efficient.”

He said that image of a university being a place where students can get a respite from the world and find themselves is changing. The university is also part of the outside world and is also affected by economic hardships, he said.

There is a debate on the campus over who is to blame for the cuts. Last month, students held a rally on campus to protest budget cuts. On Wednesday, they were at it again across all two dozen Cal State campuses.

“Everyone’s angry. They’re really angry and frustrated because we should invest in education, but that’s the main thing that’s getting cut,” Zabala said. She took part in the protest last month.

Students are calling for the resignation of system-wide Chancellor Charles Reed who they blame for many of the problems.

“He’s the one who at the end of the day decides where he allocates money and where he cuts…He definitely isn’t defending education as a chancellor,” Hernandez said.

Hellenbrand understands the students wanting to rally. “I think they are good things to do, but I think some of the comments are misdirected, because they’re focusing on the chancellor and saying he’s raising fees and things like that, but he’s just a bit player in this drama that’s playing out across the state…If you replace him, that doesn’t really solve the problem or the real causes of the problem.”

Hellenbrand said that many issues within the state affect funding for higher education and the issue is much more complicated than simply trying to get more money from the state, a state that he blames for letting the budget crisis get to the point where it is today. “Demanding more money from a bankrupt legislature that’s incompetent on top of that isn’t a very productive thing to do.”

He says budget issues go back decades, citing an initiative to limit property taxes in 1978. “If Proposition 13 had not been passed in the late 70s the state would have accumulated $90 billion more in revenue over the past 30 years than it has already. That’s a significant amount of money we’ve lost.” He also says that because the corporate tax rate is the same as it was in the 1950s and since inheritance taxes have not increased, the state lost, and continues to lose, a lot of potential money. Also, he noted, more involvement with preventative medicine would save healthcare costs, and that money could be distributed elsewhere.

“People have to understand the interconnectedness of all these issues…Until all these things are solved, we are basically dealing with a dealt deck of cards when it comes to the budget and CSU,” Hellenbrand said.

Despite all the budget issues and reasons for them, students are still flocking to Cal State. “It’s one of those paradoxes which is when the economy turns bad, it’s harder for students to afford school but they also have little alternative but to go to school because the job market is not enticing,” Hellenbrand said. The majors that students are choosing are also changing to reflect the changing job market. Hellenbrand said fewer students are going into business and K-12 education. Instead, there is growth in the social sciences and health sciences.

Still, when they graduate many students are worried about paying off the debt they have accrued, “It’s going to be hard,” Zabala said. “I’m really scared about having to pay off all my loans when I graduate.”

This report is part of our special series, California in Crisis, which explores the personal, local ramifications of the state budget debacle. Please click here for more.

Reach Alexandria Yeager here.



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