It was the
greatest education system the world had ever seen. They built it into the
eucalyptus-dotted Berkeley hills and under the
bright lights of Los Angeles, down in the valley
in Fresno and in the shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains. Hundreds of college campuses,
large and small, two-year and four-year, stretching from California's
emerald forests in the north to the heat-scorched Inland
Empire in the south. Each had its own DNA, but common to all was
this: they promised a “public” education, accessible and affordable, to those
with means and those without, a door with a welcome mat into the ivory tower,
an invitation to a better life.
Then California bled that
system dry. Over three decades, voters starved their state—and so
their colleges and universities—of cash. Politicians siphoned away
what money remained and spent it more on imprisoning people, not educating
them. College administrators grappled with shriveling state support by jacking
up tuitions, tacking on new fees, and so asking more each year from
increasingly pinched students and families. Today, many of those students
stagger under a heap of debt as they linger on waiting lists to get into
the over-subscribed classes they need to graduate.
California's public higher education
system is, in other words, dying a slow death. The promise of a cheap, quality
education is slipping away for the working and middle classes, for immigrants,
for the very people whom the University
of California's creators
held in mind when they began their grand experiment 144
years ago. And don't think the slow rot of public education is unique to California: that state's
woes are the nation's.
Baltazar lives this grim reality. In 2010, after a decade working as a
preschool teacher and a teacher's assistant, the 28-year-old Baltazar went back
to school, choosing De Anza,
a two-year community college near San
Jose. She remembers the sticker shock when she first arrived
cost per class had spiked startlingly since she graduated from high school in
2000. She would live lean, pick up side jobs, sacrifice what she could to get a
degree. "I was willing to be poor and not know if I'm gonna make it,"
she told me on a recent morning, her roommate's cat meowing in the background.
"I wanted that degree so I could have a better future."
She squeezed 20
units of classes into a quarter (not the 12 to 15 of the average student). She
worried each week about having enough money for rent, books, food. Still, she
thrived. She founded De Anza's Women Empowered Club, won the school’s
President's Award for overcoming adversity, and planned to transfer to nearby Santa Clara University to double major in psychology
and women's studies—until, that is, a state-funded "Cal Grant"
She met all the
qualifications, she told me, but Cal Grant officials informed her that she was
too old. The likely culprit, whatever they claimed: the endless state budget
cuts that had forced officials to scale back the Cal Grant program. The experience, she said, shook her
fundamental belief in the promise California
made to its students: "The impression you have is, 'I do a great job at De
Anza and I'll get to the next level.' The reality is there might not be a place
something new in what was once known as “the golden state.” For nearly as long
as colleges and universities operated in California,
there was a place for every student with the grades to get in. Classes were
cheap, professors accessible, and enrollments grew at a rapid clip. When my own
father started at Mt. San Antonio College in southern California in August 1976, anyone 18 or
older could enroll, and a semester's worth of classes cost at most $24. Then,
like so many Californians, he transferred to a four-year college, the University of California-Davis, and paid a similarly
paltry $220 a quarter. Davis's
tuition price: $4,620.
education in California
is ever less public. It is cheaper
for a middle-class student to attend Harvard (about $17,000 for tuition, room,
and board with the typical financial-help program included) than Cal State
a mid-tier school that'll run that same middle-class student $24,000 a year.
That speaks to Harvard's largesse when it comes to financial aid, but also the
relentless rise of tuition costs in California.
For the first time in generations, California's
community colleges and state universities are turning away qualified new
students and shrinking their enrollments as state funding continues its long,
slow decline. Many students who do gain admission struggle to enroll in the
classes they need—which, by the way, cost more than they ever have.
"We're in a new era," says John
Aubrey Douglass, an expert on the history of higher education in California. He’s not
exaggerating. Not a bit.
the Valley with the People"
California would not exist as we know
it today without higher education. At its peak, the state's constellation of
community colleges and Cal State and University
of California campuses
had no rival. It was the crown jewel of American education.
launched the college-building craze when, in 1862, as the bullets flew and the
bodies fell on the battlefields of the Civil War, he signed
the Morrill Act, giving every state a huge tract of federal land with which
to build a public university. In 1869, California
joined the craze by opening the University
of California. One
newspaper editorial hailed it as "the perfect structure, a magazine of new
thoughts and new motives, ready for the new and bright day of the future."
Another supporter declared that it would be a "mighty anchor in the stream
Yet not until California's
trust-busting Progressive politicians claimed power in the early 1900s did the
populist promise of the state's higher education system begin to take shape.
The Progressives saw higher education as a path to the middle class—and with
an educated middle class they were convinced they could loosen the stranglehold
corporate powers like the Southern Pacific Railroad had on the state. "The
university was their Progressive dream come true," historian Kevin Starr
for the University
of California soared from
a few hundred thousand dollars in 1900 to more than $3 million by 1920. As
future UC president Clark Kerr would write, "The campus is no longer on the hill with
the aristocracy but in the valley with the people."
Down in that
valley, more and more people wanted an education. New campuses sprouted
statewide before World War II, and then in its wake were flooded with returning
GIs and former war workers. Governor Earl Warren used those colleges and
universities as "shock absorbers" when the state’s wartime
economy-on-steroids slowed. He put his money on a novel concept: California would educate
its way out of any post-war slump.
system exploded in the 1940s and 1950s. Students poured into classrooms. But
not until Kerr became president did he and other education leaders attempt to
create a systemic blueprint for growth with what was called the "California
Master Plan for Higher Education." Under this plan, the brightest
students were to attend a flagship UC school, the next-smartest group would go
to a Cal State school, and the remainder would
start at a two-year community college with an eye toward transferring to a
The Master Plan brought order to a rapidly growing system.
It was hailed around the world as a stroke of genius when it came to educating
young people. In 1960, Time magazine even put Kerr on its cover, bestowing on him the title of "master
planner." (Kerr was a complicated figure. He later clashed with
UC-Berkeley's famed Free Speech Movement, yet FBI director J. Edgar Hoover
believed he was too close to campus activists and secretly pushed
for his ouster. The college's board of regents unceremoniously fired him in 1967.)
This was the
heyday of California
higher education. Enrollment grew by 300 percent between 1930 and 1960, and the
state's share of college funding kept pace. But that all started to change on
June 6, 1978, when California
voters approved Proposition 13, a ballot measure that limited property tax
assessments. More importantly, it handcuffed state lawmakers by requiring a
two-thirds supermajority any time they wanted to increase taxes, and made a
two-thirds vote among citizens necessary to raise local taxes. Prop. 13 kicked
off California's "tax revolt" of the 1970s and 1980s,
a slew of ballot measures that choked off revenue for state and local
governments and left lawmakers scrambling to fill the gap. It was the beginning
of the demise of public higher education in California.
Just Getting Chainsawed"
Schrag describes what followed as the "Mississippification" of California. Hot with the fever of an
anti-tax, small-government movement, Californians began the long, slow
burn-down of the state's higher education system. As Jeff Bleich, a former Cal State trustee and former counsel to President Obama,
put it in 2009, California
higher education "is being starved to death by a public that thinks any
government service—even public education—is not worth paying for. And
by political leaders who do not lead but instead give in to our worst,
tell the story. In 2011, public colleges and universities received 13 percent
less in state money than they had in 1980 (when adjusted for inflation). In
1980, 15 percent of the state budget had gone to higher education; by 2011,
that number had dropped to 9 percent. Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 state
budgets, lawmakers sliced away another $1.5 billion in funding, the largest
such reduction in any high-population state in the country.
Dianne Klein, a
spokeswoman for the office of University
of California president
Mark Yudof, couldn’t contain her dismay when reacting to recent cuts.
"Here we have the world's best public university system, and we're just
getting chainsawed," she told the Daily Californian. "Public education
is dying, and perhaps we are reaching a tipping point."
to a 2010 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, young adults
are less likely to graduate from college than their parents. Among the 20 most
populous states, California ranked 18th in 2010 in its rate of students going
straight from high school to college; factor in all states and California
ranked 40th. According to the institute, this crumbling bridge between high
school and college means California
could face a shortfall of a million skilled workers by 2025.
And what awaits
the students who do make it into the ivory tower? Let me paint you a grim
picture. Colleges are filling the gap in state funding by leaning ever harder
on students and their families to pay more in tuition and fees. Thirty years
ago, the state accounted for nearly 70 percent of public higher education
funding; today, it's 25 percent. In the last five years alone, student fees
for University of California and Cal State
students. For community college students, they've leapt by 80 percent.
increasingly hunt for grants and scholarships to cover some part of their
growing share of the tab, but far more often their only option is to take out
loans. According to the Project on Student Debt, in 2010 nearly half of all
graduates of public and private four-year schools in California were saddled with an average debt load of $18,000. Nationally, a record one-in-five
college graduates has student loan debt, and in 2010, the national average for
debt owed was $26,682, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.
In California, community colleges have always been the most
democratic of California's
higher education options. They educate the majority of students, offer the most
classes, and provide students with job training or a launching pad to a
four-year college. They have, however, taken a Mike Tyson-esque beating in California's budget
crises, losing $809 million—or 12 percent of their state funding—since
reduced class offerings, fewer sections of the classes that remain, and the
laying off of faculty and staff. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, 85 percent
112 community colleges had waiting lists of students trying to get into
overbooked classes. In all, 470,000 community college students were stuck in
such a situation. Eighty-two percent of these colleges said they weren't
offering any winter semester classes at all. Enrollment is down at community
colleges by 17 percent. "We're at the breaking point," Jack Scott,
the recently retired community college chancellor, told the Los Angeles Times in September.
Tirado, a student at Los Angeles Trade Tech, told the Times that class
shortages meant it could take her three to four years to get her two-year
associate's degree. Tirado’s situation is increasingly commonplace. "It's
hard to explain to my mom that I'm trying to go to school but the classes are
not there," she said.
The budget cuts
have also hit faculty and staff hard. Seventy percent of community colleges said in a recent survey that they'd cut hours for support
staffs. On Cal State campuses, the faculty-student ratio has jumped from 21
students per faculty member in 1980 to 32-to-1 in 2010—and the
same trend can be seen among the system’s elite schools, with the
faculty-student ratio there inching up from 16-to-1 to 21-to-1 over the same
period. As faculty members deal with larger class size, more papers to read,
more tests to grade, their pay has failed to keep pace. Salaries for Cal State
professors haven't budged from the $75,000 to $93,000 range for the last 30
years. Adjust for inflation and CSU professors earned less in 2010 than they
did in 1980.
So where did
all that money go? Here's a hint: Look for the men who wear orange jumpsuits, sleep stacked atop each other in
triple-decker bunk beds, and each year gobble up an ever greater share of
California's ever scarcer finances.
higher education and prison systems are a study in opposites. The prison system
saw its state funding in dollars leap 436 percent between 1980 and 2011. Back
then, spending on prisons was a mere 3 percent of California's budget; it's now 10 percent.
According to the
nonpartisan transparency group California Common Sense, the prison
population expanded at eight times the growth rate of California’s population. In May 2011, the
U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to immediately shrink its prison
population because its treatment of prisoners constituted cruel and unusual
punishment. At the time, its 33 prisons held 143,321 inmates (official capacity: 80,000).
If money talks,
message is plain enough: prisoners matter more than students. Put another way:
college is the past, jail is the future.
disillusionment over California's
abandonment of its students, teachers, and staff boiled over in 2011. Protests
sprung up at campuses across the state. Students shut down a meeting of the University of California’s Board
of Regents, walked out of classes at San Francisco State, and clashed
with truncheon-swinging police in Long Beach and Berkeley.
But the most
indelible of these protests unfolded on the campus of UC-Davis, an hour's drive
northeast of San Francisco.
Student protesters there disobeyed campus rules by staging a peaceful sit-in on
a footpath in the campus quad. For their efforts Lt. John Pike, a
barrel-chested, helmeted, mustachioed campus cop, doused
them with pepper spray. He did so in a manner so nonchalant that it
triggered immediate shock and outrage; photos and videos of the incident shot
across the globe in meme form. There was Lt. Pike pepper-spraying God in Michaelangelo's "Creation of
Adam," soaking the Declaration of Independence in John Trumbull's
1817 painting, feeding the raging flames that swallowed up the Buddhist
monk Thich Quang Duc after he had set himself ablaze in Saigon in 1963.
A rallying cry
for the dozen or so students who occupied that path was the price of an education.
In just eight years, tuition at UC-Davis had more than doubled.
did not show up for fall classes at Santa
Without the state grant she'd hoped for, she returned to De Anza for a third
year. She's starting a paid internship in which she'll school students in how
to better navigate the world of college financial aid. "I want to try to
help people understand what their options are," she told me. "I don't
want somebody else to be in my shoes. It was so hard."
Baltazar and a friend traveled down the coast to Santa Cruz. She stopped in a tourist shop,
and a postcard on a rack caught her eye. It listed a smattering of facts from
1981, the year she was born. Her gaze settled on one particular figure: Harvard University tuition was then $6,000. The
nation's oldest and most prestigious university had cost just six grand. That's
$15,206 in today's dollars. She couldn't believe it. At De Anza, Baltazar said
she spent $18,000 a year in tuition and living costs.
me that she's still set on getting her bachelor's degree. She'll try again for Santa Clara, and also
apply to state schools. She's not picky; she can't afford to be. "I will
apply to anybody who will take me and help me pay for it," she said.
Like a lot of
young people in California,
Baltazar clings to the dream of public higher education, but in her life, as in
those of so many others across the state, it’s curdling into something more
like a nightmare. "I went to school in California because I knew there
were more financial aid options, I knew about the Cal Grant, and I thought, 'I
should be able to get these things,'" she told me. "In California, the
education system is great—if you can afford it. If you can't afford it, it's kind
of a moot point."
California once led the way into a
system of unparalleled public higher education. It now seems determined to lead
the way out of it.
is a staff reporter in D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine. He's the
son of two graduates of California's higher
education system, and he himself graduated from a public institution, the University of Michigan. An associate editor at TomDispatch, he writes
about politics, money, and the economy, and can be reached at akroll (at)
motherjones (dot) com.
Image by Hank Chapot,
licensed under Creative