The role of public higher education in California's economy is well understood. The state's enormous constellation of classrooms and labs are the engine of change, a vast idea factory where new technologies are created and entire business sectors emerge. The state's three tiered system —split between the Community Colleges, State Universities, and University of California— is also the wellspring of the highly educated workforce demanded by California's leading industries. Each year tens of thousands of graduates are hired to work as managers, engineers, and scientists by companies big and small.
And more importantly it makes democracy, or the semblance of it that does exist, partly possible. That's why a “liberal arts education” is at the center of a college education, regardless of one's major. To be educated in the liberal arts is to be steeped in the philosophies, arts, histories, and technics of many cultures and peoples accumulated in the canons of academia. Ideally the purpose of the liberal arts is to liberate the student, to teach her to think and act with critical consciousness. Over the past half century social movements made real this promise, bringing feminism, environmentalism, black radicalism, anti-imperialism, and other forms of democratic/liberatory thought to the university.
The fact that the state's education system is so directly tied to the economy's health hasn't prevented cuts to higher education in recent years, however. The fact that social movements have found such fertile grounds for liberation on college campuses may, however, play a role in the great austerity assault that is slowly destroying public higher education in California.
From the mid-1980s to today economic recessions combined with an increasing inability to raise revenues has led Sacramento to precipitously reduce the state's commitment to higher ed. The cost of the state's principle economic engine has therefore slowly been shifted onto the shoulders of those least able to pay: students. Furthermore, since 2008 state budgets have cut higher ed in absolute terms: cuts are now larger than student fee increases and other revenue streams can make up for. This has led to increases in class sizes, pay cuts, hiring freezes, furloughs, elimination of classes, and in a few cases elimination of entire programs and departments as the colleges and universities scramble to cope with fiscal contraction.
For the state's ruling class this is a crisis of sorts. Their source of technocrats and technology is being shaken to the core and restructured in dramatic ways. Politically speaking the ramifications amount to a rollback of rights won by the Civil Rights Movement. The right to an affordable education is being stripped from the hands of California's working class and the middle class are being made to join them.
The spring is drying up, the well being poisoned, the goose that laid the golden egg is being starved to death— use whatever metaphors you like, public higher education is in trouble. It's a familiar story now, reported in literally every paper across the state for the past decade. The public has largely received this tale of decline with outrage and disbelief, and yet the death march continues.
Faculty and administrators universally agree that the budget cuts have harmed their ability to educate students and conduct research. Some even point to a more nefarious trend resulting from over a decade of budget cuts, rising fees, and the intrusion of the profit motive into academia. It's variously labeled privatization or corporatization of education. It's changing the entire notion of what education should be, replacing a public good with a private commodity, switching social investment in the future workforce, and the promise of a more democratic polis, with private purchases of class privilege and student loan debt. The transformation is instituting an all around more instrumental approach to learning, eradicating the promise of the liberal education, except for the elite few who can afford the even costlier private colleges where greater resources still allow it.
All of this has dramatically affected the North Bay's two biggest institutions of higher education. At the SRJC administrators have been forced to cutback classes and sections, a problem mostly stemming from the college's inability to hire enough professors and lecturers to satisfy demand. Rising costs of attendance are also a concern, although the school has yet to see students bail in large numbers. Numerous programs have been nixed.
At SSU rising fees are more of a concern because they are already significantly high. And like the SRJC, Sonoma State has had to cut back on class offerings and programs. Implications for the local economy are serious as students, most of whom are born and raised between Marin and Humboldt counties, are having a harder time pursuing their studies and graduating. Many are now making decisions based on worries about debt instead of their aspirations. This is the opposite of education to liberate.
More fundamentally than the economic woes that are being created by education's underfunding is the distorting under-development of the current generation of high school graduates. They will remember their college years as stressful. They will recall that more of their time was spent working dead end jobs to pay tuition, than spent in class or studying. They shuffle about preoccupied with specters of a dark atomized future filled with corporate servitude, rather than dreaming about better worlds to be built. They will graduate eventually with onerous debts, and their post-college decisions will be based not on aspirations, but on the force of repayment, collections. They may graduate with the skills to be a competent bean counter for capital, but will never be exposed to, or given the time to ponder the literatures, the great debates, the philosophies and fields of study that make for vibrant democratic society.
Two years ago a collective of California students penned a manifesto in frustration of these trends. “We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow,” they wrote. “And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have. Close to three quarters of students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after graduation. Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s debt. We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around.”
In the two years since Communique from an Absent Future was published students across the state tried seemingly everything. They marched on Sacramento, occupied buildings at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Fresno State, demonstrated, shouted, held walk-outs, debated, fought the police, battled in courts.... And yet the budgets continue, privatization proceeds, debts grow.
Back to School
This school year Santa Rosa Junior College students, which includes many of Mendocino's youth, have seen their fees increase by ten dollars per unit, from $26 to $36. It's the single largest increase in Community Colleges fees to date. And while it may not seem enormous, it's the small things that add up. At $36 per unit a full-time student will be shelling out upwards of $432 a semester. That means the cost of obtaining an AA/AS degree at the SRJC is now $2,160 in fees, not counting textbooks and other expenses.
Two grand may not sound like a barrier, especially considering financial aid that is available. According to the SRJC's Financial Aid Director Kris Shear, the Doyle and other scholarships pay the fees for about 1,250 students each semester. Another thousand students receive federal loans (which are interest free while in school), and 12,500 low-income students have their fees waived entirely because they are so demonstrably poor. Shear says the number of applicants for financial aid has tripled in the last six years due to the faltering economy and fee hikes.
In a report released earlier this year the state Legislative Analysts Office advocated further increases in Community College fees. LAO staff have reasoned that most low-income students will continue to pay no fees by using waivers and scholarships, and those who are impacted by fee increases can use federal tax credits to lessen the pain. LAO's motivation is to rationalize further budget cuts to the Community College system. Like many of the tangled bureaucracies in Sacramento the LAO seems to have given up on restoring the social contract that once taxed the wealthiest and corporations to make investments benefitting the whole. Defeated they've reverted to finding face saving measures for the legislature.
The Chancellor's Office of the CCC system has long opposed this line of thinking, saying in 2009, for example, that “our experience indicates that larger fee increases drive away students.” Based on past research and close observation community college leaders explain that few students are aware of or comfortable calculating tax credits. “The reality is when you are dealing with many of our younger and lower income students, especially those ranging from 17-25 years of age, it may be unrealistic to expect everyone to fully take advantage of a tax credit as the LAO proposes,” explained Terri Carbaugh, Vice Chancellor.
Back in 2005 the Chancellor's Office conducted an impact study to see if fee increases were indeed causally linked to declines in enrollment. The study, the most complete and methodologically sound done to date, concluded yes: “student fee increases and budget cuts resulted in significant decline in enrollments of approximately 230,000 to 315,000 students and a loss of more than 12,000 course sections.” Nothing quite says under-development of an entire state like hundreds of thousands of prospective students turned away by the forces of austerity and fears of debt.
But Fees are just the beginning of the problem at this level. At the SRJC the impacts of budget cuts are best understood when all the cost increases and cuts are considered together. While each small fee increase or specific program cut may seem small, altogether they amount to a significant tax increase, if you will, on those attending school.
One recent study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education pointed out that for community college students: “rental housing costs comprise the largest share of student budgets and grew nearly 25% from 2000—2005 in California, compared with an overall inflation rate of 16% in the state. Textbook and supply costs increased by 31% during the same period. Costs for medical care and child care also outpaced general inflation by a large margin, yet they are not adequately taken into account in ﬁfinancial aid calculations.” In other words, the total cost of going to school at a community college has drastically increased over the past ten years.
Another example of these compounding costs is transportation. Earlier this year the SRJC ended its bus pass program. Now instead of paying $16 and $22.50 for CityBus and Sonoma County Transit bus passes, students must pay $40 and $45 respectively. Most SRJC students drive to class, and rising gas prices further eat into their paychecks and loans. Students at the more far-flung community college campuses like College of Mendocino and College of the Redwoods face even greater transportation costs.
Top all this off with the slow economy and high unemployment rate and it's clear how small cuts add up to big problems for community college students. The worst of it is that for most, community college is just the start of their post-secondary education.
Wine Country U.
At Sonoma State University, to where many of the North Coast's community college students eventually transfer, the overall situation is similarly declining, with housing, textbooks, transportation and other expenses rising, while wages stagnate and employment opportunities disappear.
In the 2009-2010 school year the CSU system was subjected to a half-billion cut by Schwarzenegger and the legislature. This led to fee increases of $978 for undergraduate students, $780 for teacher credential students, and $828 for graduate students. CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed said it was the steepest drop in state support for the system ever. In addition to making students pay more, CSU administrators chopped into programs with a meat cleaver, curtailed enrollments by turning away upwards of 40,000 students, and instituted furlough days for its 16,000 staff and 23,000 faculty.
Then came the 2010-2011 academic year, and further cuts led to further fee increases of five percent for undergrads and professional school students, and ten percent for graduate students.
The 2011-2012 school year is perhaps the worst yet. Governor Brown's budget cuts $650 million from the CSU system. This led to yet another fee increase on July 12, a 12 percent hike. According to CSU administrators total average fees across the system now stand at $6,422.
Sonoma State University's situation has been made all the worse in relation to other CSU campuses thanks to the general gentrification of Sonoma County over the past decade. The cost of living has shot up, symbolized best by skyrocketing wine country real estate prices, making SSU one of the costliest colleges in terms of non-tuition expenses. This hasn't just been the result of wider economic trends unresponsive to the actions of administrators, says one group of SSU faculty who have criticized the budget cuts and the corporatization of SSU.
According to Faculty and Staff for Quality Education, Sonoma State University is suffering from an administration that has been intent to grow “revenues” to pay for an increasingly large administrative office, all by increasing student fees and privatizing certain functions of the school. At the same time instruction has suffered under declining budgets. This campaign to corporatize the school has included scandals over use of SSU Foundation funds to fuel the speculative business deals of Clem Carinalli, formerly the largest landholder and housing developer in Sonoma County, and; a controversy over the construction of expensive campus facilities that have ballooned the debt burden of SSU, the Green Music Center being the biggest.
Peter Phillips, professor of sociology at SSU (and founder of Project Censored) has criticized the school's increasingly corporate management, and the “public ivy” image that SSU president Ruben Armiñana has promoted as a means of attracting students who will pay more for their education. In a blog comment (that echoes his extensive research report, “Building a Public Ivy,”) Phillips wrote last year that:
“public universities in the state of California used to be fully tax supported. Fees at CSUs in the 1970 were $50 per semester. Now $300k CSU Presidents are like corporate CEOs with top down management control over the campus budgets. Some like Armiñana have used this power to further move the university to a corporate model complete with logos and “customer” service centers. Instead of being the university for the people, with full access for middle and low income families, the CSUs and Sonoma State in particular, have cultivated an upper-middle/ upper-class wine country image, complete with some of the fanciest student housing —Tuscany Village— in the state.”
As a result SSU has become a distilled example of the trend affecting California public higher education this last decade. It's costlier, less diverse, and less accessible to working class students than it has been since colleges were de-facto desegregated in the 1960s. In response to declining state support —stemming ultimately from corporate victories to pass highly restrictive amendments to the tax code and constitution, and white backlash against integration of housing and education— school administrators, from the CSUs to UC system, have opportunistically betrayed the Master Plan for Higher Education, and sought funds through privatizing the university. Student fees have been at the center of this agenda.
The last two years saw a large upsurge in student activism against cuts at the UC campuses, but also at the CSUs and Community Colleges. Even high school students staged walkouts in protest of cuts to education. This year may see similar mass resistance, especially if a mid-year cut is proposed.
On the SRJC's first day of class this year, August 22, a group of SRJC students and other local youth calling themselves Strike! staged a lunch time banner drop and protest. One sheet hung from Emeritus Hall read “Class in Recession,” while another hoisted on a parking garage above busy Mendocino Avenue announced “Education Should be Free.” Still another read “WTF!,” as in “Where's the Funding?” but implying a sense of outrage: “what the fuck!?”
“The damage cuts inflict is slow. It's always stressing you out in the back of your head,” said James Scherf, an SRJC student and member of Strike! “It's impossible not to feel like you're getting less than if you'd been a student here a few years ago. It’s hard when you hear how many more sections used to exist for a certain class, or the classes that'll disappear when an instructor retires, or how the 4-year university you want to transfer to just hiked their fees again.”
Scherf and his fellow students who organized the day-one protest point to the state’s inequitable tax system as a primary cause of budget cuts and fee hikes. Flyers they were distributing explain that, “Budget cuts to education are part of the larger historical attack by the super-wealthy corporate class on the rights and services of the working class.” The solution they propose: “California should honor the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960, and provide secondary education ‘tuition free to all residents of the state.’”
So far California's rulers are on track to further betray the Master Plan. The 2012 budget agreed to by the legislature and Governor Brown relies on some of the same “gimmicky” tricks that Brown has derided in the not too distant past, the sort of fuzzy math Schwarzenegger and his predecessor Davis used to fix budgets.
Specifically this year's budget relies on rosy economic projections that assume roughly $4 billion in extra revenues due to economic growth. With the state's unemployment rate lingering above 12% (the second worst in the nation) sales tax and corporate tax revenues have already come in hundreds of millions behind these projections, according to the State Comptroller's Office.
Part of the budget deal agreed to early this summer involved creating robo-cuts to be implemented if revenues fall short. Community Colleges and the State University are on this block. Huge mid-year funding cuts should be expected sometime this Winter when the state's economy fails to recover. Ironically part of the reason it will fail to recover might be the accumulated effects of a decade of disinvestment in higher education.
Might the education system and Sacramento also be assured huge protests? That's much harder to predict. Scherf and other SRJC students say they're planning a teach-in and other possible actions as the school year gets underway though.