Chronicle of Higher Ed Features LBCC
As seen in the Chronicle of Higher Ed
By Lee Gardner and Goldie Blumenstyk
Cupertino, Hayward, Long Beach, and San Jose, Calif.
Edgar Guzman is the sort of person you'd want greeting the public, even if just briefly through a carry-out window. Tidy and poised in his maroon uniform shirt and baseball cap, he speaks with care and answers in the affirmative with a crisp "Correct."
Mr. Guzman, 22, likes to work drive-through. Manning the front counter at the Chick-fil-A in Long Beach, Calif., where he clocks about 30 hours a week in the summer, makes time drag, he says, but when he's working the window, "everything goes by fast. If I'm working a six-hour shift it doesn't feel that long."
But he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life taking orders over a headset, pouring soft drinks, and stuffing sandwiches into bags.
Edgar Guzman attends Long Beach City College and works 30 hours a week in fast food. He hopes to transfer to California State U. at Long Beach and be the first in his family to graduate from college.
That's why Mr. Guzman has been taking classes at Long Beach City College for the past two years, working toward an associate degree. From there, he says, he plans to transfer to nearby California State University at Long Beach. Bachelor's degree in hand, he hopes to study constitutional law, he says, or maybe go into politics.
Mr. Guzman is an example of the California dream at work. He came to the Long Beach area from Mexico City with his family when he was 2 years old. His mother cleaned houses and his father worked in construction to support him and his five younger siblings. He has grown up with a sense of duty to his adopted hometown; he works part time as a outreach worker for Kingdom Causes, a faith-based nonprofit community group. He is the first member of his family to graduate from high school, Bellflower High, and did so with honors. He will probably also be the first to graduate from college.
But first he has make it to Cal State, and to do that, he has to pass four successive mathematics classes at Long Beach City. He's been having trouble getting into the first one. When he registered online for the fall semester in late July, he attempted to add it, but the class was already closed. "I'm No. 23 on the wait list," he says.
Mr. Guzman says it's not the first time he's had trouble getting into a class. He recalls attending the first meeting of a full math class he hoped to add. The instructor asked those in the standing-room-only classroom who were not officially registered to step out into the hall. "More than half of the people in the room left," Mr. Guzman says. Once outside, the instructor told the students, "'OK, only two of you will possibly be able to add the class. The rest of you, sorry, it's not going to happen.'"
"There's a lot of that happening," Mr. Guzman says, "which is not cool."
David W. Morse, who has taught English at Long Beach City for more than two decades, confirms that in the past few years it's not unusual to see "15, 20—for some disciplines 40 or 50—students lined up at the door trying to get in on the first day," he says.
"Their stories are real," Mr. Morse says. "They need this to graduate, they need this to move on. Their education is stalled."
It isn't supposed to be that way. For decades, the California state public higher-education system has served as an inspiration and aspiration for systems all over the nation and many around the world. Its emphasis on the widest possible access and rock-bottom fees are written right into the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, the document that also codified its three-tier structure: the elite research institutions of the University of California system, the mass higher education of the California State University system, and the job training and transfer prep of the open-admission California Community Colleges.
In 2010, California public colleges enrolled more than 2.3 million students, or one out of nine college students in the United States. Nine out of 10 California students attended a Cal State university or a community college.
The state system has successfully educated and enriched generations of Californians, even as the state's population has grown larger, more diverse, and less prosperous in recent decades. California has been hit hard by the economic downturn, but the state also has an aversion to raising taxes that predates the nationwide Reagan revolution. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 not only limited future property-tax increases, it required a politically elusive two-thirds majority in the California State Legislature to approve any tax increase. At the same time, college administrators and legislators have been reluctant to raise fees or limit access, even as tax revenues have plunged over the past five years.
The 10-institution UC system has seen its allocation of state funds cut by $1-billion since 2008, a drop of 25 percent. The 116 community colleges have lost $668-million over the same time, a loss of 24 percent. The 23 Cal State institutions have been cut by almost $900-million, 30 percent of their prerecession support. And those cuts may soon deepen sharply.
This November, California voters will face a slate of referenda at the polls, a process the state government often uses to enact policy without having to go through its gridlocked legislature (see a related article). Proposition 30, put forth by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, a Democrat, would temporarily raise the state sales tax by 3.25 percent and levy additional income taxes on top earners to close a $15.7-billion state budget deficit. If Prop 30 fails at the polls, the three tiers of the state higher-education system have already been warned by Sacramento that they face an additional "trigger cut" that will lead to reductions of more than $963-million, effective January 2013. Poll results published in July by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University found that 56.2 percent of voters supported the measure.
Still, even if voters preserve current state support through new taxes, the California state higher-education system is in "crisis mode," says F. King Alexander, president of Cal State at Long Beach, and yet "most people in California don't seem to realize it."
The California system may remain a model for many, but according to students, faculty, and administrators in both Southern and Northern California, it is hobbled by repeated budget cuts and an intractable knot of conflicting state imperatives: to graduate more students, to keep costs to students low, and to spend less state money while doing so. If Californians—like many Americans, generally resistant to tax increases in recent years—fail to approve Prop 30, the situation will soon get much, much worse.
'Ripped Out of Their Hands'
The trouble with public higher education in California isn't a subject that gets much of an airing during summer school at San Jose High School. Soon-to-be 10th and 11th graders like Luis Rayas, Asma Ahmed, Abel Flores, and 250 others are too busy learning about water quality in a chemistry class, totalitarianism in world history, and cosigns in precalculus.
Most of these high-school students come here each day to get a jump on the courses they'll need to qualify for college. Quite a few of them have set their sights high: Ms. Ahmed wants to go to Stanford University. Mr. Rayas wants to attend a private college too, although he figures he won't be able to afford one without a lot of financial aid. His mom manages the trailer park where they live and also works at a hotel. Mr. Rayas works at a grocery store and at a shop that sells spray-on tattoos. He says his GPA is pretty good—"B-ish"—and the practice ACT he took in January suggests he could score between 23 and 27. "I still have it," he says, pulling a score sheet from his notebook. "I was told that it was pretty good, so it motivates me."
Like many of these students, Mr. Rayas is a regular in Room 40, an office festooned with college banners that houses counselors from the school and from Gear Up, a federal program that prepares low-income students for college. Ms. Ahmed calls Room 40 "the room for your future."
San Jose High School sends nearly 90 percent of its students to colleges, and plenty of graduates have always managed to go on to elite institutions and high-profile careers—former Congressman Norman Mineta, also a member of two presidents' cabinets, graduated here in 1949, back when the city was known for its large population of Japanese and Portuguese immigrants.
But like California, the community's demographics have changed. Today the high school of more than 1,000 students is 86 percent Hispanic, with more than three-quarters of the students needy enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. (As of 2011, Hispanics accounted for 51 percent of all public-school students in California, up from 37 percent in 2004.)
For years, California's public colleges have been their doorway to opportunity, says Principal Cary Cathing, just as San Jose State University was hers when she entered in 1980, the daughter of a migrant farmworker. Now, thanks to the budget cuts, she sees that door closing. "It's painful to watch," she says.
The importance of a college education is "a message we've been giving kids for years, and I don't want to let them down," Ms. Cathing says.
Abel Flores is undeterred. Already proficient in English after coming to San Jose just under a year ago, from Jalisco, Mexico, the 15-year-old signed up for precalculus in summer school on the advice of a counselor he found in Room 40. He assumes a community college, most likely De Anza College, is his next step, "because it's not expensive," and because his older brother went there for years.
Abel and his brother, Pedro Flores, 25, live together in a modest room about two miles from the high school. Their mother and five other siblings remain in Mexico, but they get some financial help from their father, who lives near Los Angeles and works in construction. Pedro works in the lumber department at Home Depot. The brothers also get help from a local food bank and fee waivers from De Anza.
Pedro is majoring in computer science, and this fall he'll transfer to San Jose State University. While he'll still be working, he hopes he'll have time to finally join a club, the one for computer enthusiasts. His adopted hometown is home to Cisco Systems and eBay, and Google, Apple, and dozens of other hot technology companies are nearby. Mr. Flores says he'd love to work at one of them someday. "I've been in Silicon Valley all this time, but I haven't seen Silicon Valley," he says.
Four years ago, Marisol Arzate graduated from San Jose High. She is now a student at San Jose State and works for the All-Stars after-school program at Monroe Middle School.
Not only has the program allowed her to avoid borrowing to pay for college, she also enjoys providing "living proof" to lower-income middle schoolers that a college education is achievable for them.
This summer Ms. Arzate is also working as a counselor at the All-Stars "Camp Us" at San Jose State, an educational program for eighth graders. For a week, the kids live in the residence halls, experiment with LEGO robotics, and practice taking SAT tests and writing college-application essays.
Many of those campers would love to come to San Jose State, but even if they're well prepared, Ms. Arzate fears that the fallout from the budget shortfall will mean they'll face stiff competition.
The politicians and administrators who are holding back education spending are "basically ripping out the education from their hands," Ms. Arzate says.
Open Access, Closed Sections
Eloy Ortiz Oakley started at a community college, taking courses at Golden West College in Huntington Beach before earning bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of California at Irvine. He took over as president of the Long Beach City Community College District in 2007, just in time to watch the economy implode. The budget fallout soon began to affect the two Long Beach campuses he oversees. The way he describes it sounds almost like time travel—backward.
"We are scaled back to 1999-2000 levels of enrollment," he says. Full-time enrollment was nearly 22,000 students three years ago. If the worst happens in November, we'll be down to less than 19,000," he says. "It'll take us back to where we were back in 1996."
When Mr. Oakley talks about Long Beach City enrollment, what he means is the number of students the college can serve based on the money it receives from the state (more than $92-million last year), which has dropped by more than $10-million, a reduction of nearly 10 percent since 2008. And with high-school graduating classes now the largest in state history and under- or unemployed workers going back for retraining or a new degree, the demand for classes at the two-year college is up. With its open-admission policy, Long Beach City College can't turn away qualified students, but it can't accommodate them all either.
"We control our enrollment in terms of the number of sections we offer," Mr. Oakley says, and the number of classes offered has been dropping. "There are thousands and thousands of students competing for the same classes," he says. In 2007-8, Long Beach City offered more than 6,600 sections; in 2012-13, it will offer fewer than 4,700, a reduction of almost 30 percent.
Mr. Morse, an English instructor at the college, says it could fill "another 20, 25 sections" of required English-composition classes if there was a budget for them. (The college will offer 162 sections in the fall.) He adds that he and other instructors do their best to add students to full classes, but "you can't just take every student who shows up and do a good job of educating all of them."
And then there are more personal stresses on faculty. In March, Mr. Oakley announced that budget shortfalls would require laying off 55 full-time Long Beach City support staff and administrators; Mr. Morse says many part-time faculty have had their hours trimmed or eliminated. "There are full-time faculty members who are afraid for their jobs" now, Mr. Morse says.
Patrick Madrazo, 20, a graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School, says he recently tried to register for a math class he'll need to get into Long Beach City's nursing program and was shut out. "I remember I was, like, wait list 38," he says. Yet he agrees with Mr. Morse that adding more students to full classes isn't a good solution. It might be harder to get the right classes these days, but it's also harder "paying attention in classes, cause now there's bigger classes, more people," he says.
Carmina Diaz, a 21-year-old who wants to teach history, thought she had a good chance to add a speech class she needed. She was No. 4 on the wait list. "I kept coming to the class," she says. The three students ahead of her on the list got in; she did not.
Once she does have enough units, Ms. Diaz wants to follow the same path as many of her friends from her alma mater, Long Beach's Robert A. Millikan High School, and transfer to Cal State at Long Beach, to study history. "That's my plan," she says.
That's Timothy Castillo's plan too. Swimming under a baggy T-shirt under a mop of dark hair, he's just emerged from Brotman Hall, the administration building at Cal State at Long Beach, after a visit to speed his transfer from Cerritos College, in Norwalk. He plans to study nursing, and seems ready to leave community college behind.
"Classes are packed" at Cerritos, he says, and "harder to get into every year." Of course, he adds, "There are more people who are going to be here, too."
Indeed, the increased demand is spreading. Unlike the community colleges, Cal State universities are selective in their admissions, charged explicitly with educating the top third of the state's high-school graduates, with preference given to transfers from community colleges and, in the case of Cal State at Long Beach, special priority given to transfers from Long Beach City.
In the five years since the economic downturn, however, Cal State at Long Beach has seen its state support cut by 30 percent, to an operating budget of less than $200-million. At the same time, it too has seen demand rise. The University of California at Los Angeles, the largest selective California public college, received more than 72,000 applications for the fall 2012 semester and accepted more than 15,000 new students.
According to Mr. Alexander, the Cal State at Long Beach president, his university received more than 78,000 applications for the fall 2012 semester, and will enroll about 7,000, only 3,000 of them transfer students. (In 2007, the institution received more than 65,000 applications and enrolled about 10,000 new students, including about 3,300 transfers.)
Enrollments are set to get even tighter in the short term. As a result of cutbacks across the system, Long Beach is among 13 of the 23 Cal State universities forbidden in March by Chancellor Charles B. Reed to admit transfer students for the 2013 spring semester. "We're not even open," Mr. Alexander marvels, adding that in years past Cal State Long Beach might admit 5,000 to 6,000 transfers for the spring.
Given the possibility that, if Proposition 30 fails, the Cal State system could be looking at an additional $250-million in state budget cuts in January, the chancellor's office announced this spring that any students who applied to Cal State colleges for the fall 2013 semester would be admitted only on a "provisional basis" until the outcome of the November referendum is known.
"The notion is that the letter students will get will say, 'We hope we can admit you in the fall, but we're still working on it,'" says David A. Dowell, Cal State Long Beach's vice provost for budget and enrollment, and director of strategic planning.
Mr. Dowell says that the Cal State chancellor's office also released enrollment targets for 2013-14 that include a 3 percent downsizing over all. "You can't cut continuing students," Mr. Dowell explains. "All the downsizing has to come out of new admissions, so it's not a 3-percent cut in admissions. It's much bigger than that. We haven't bothered to figure that out yet, but it will be large.
"We've been very protective of access to classes for students," Mr. Dowell says, "which means we've done a lot less of everything else," including staff travel, replacing equipment, and paying for student-success programs. If the ballot initiative fails, he says, the university will no longer be able to preserve the level of access it offers now, even with its frozen transfers and provisional admissions. "We've been very careful stewards of our money," he says, "but we're running out of flexibility."
Cal State at Long Beach students may not endure as many closed sections and wait lists as the Long Beach City students have, but for 2012-13, the university has joined some other state colleges in adopting a 13-unit cap—roughly four classes—for initial student registration. Once all continuing and incoming students have attempted to sign up for four classes, the cap is released, and students may then register for additional classes, up to 16 units. But by that time, some students say, the classes they need most may already be full, leaving them to take an elective or no additional class at all.
Robert Baker is in his third year of studying computer science at Cal State at Long Beach and obviously loves the institution—he's quick to demonstrate its rallying cry, "Go Beach!" He sounds less enthused about the new registration policy.
"For a lot of us, it's changed our route through college," he says. "It would have been maybe a five-year route taking five classes a semester." Now that initial registration is down to four classes, Mr. Baker says Cal State students may wind up in summer school or tacking on additional semesters to get the classes they need. "It costs more money to get the same education," he says.
Students Are Getting 'Less'
Christopher Prado hails from Stockton. It's the city, he notes, that Forbes magazine calls the "most miserable" in the nation for its high crime and poor economy, and where his dad, brother, and a cousin all consider themselves lucky for having work in a mattress factory. At California State-East Bay, 60 miles away in Hayward, Mr. Prado was eager to become the first of his extended family of 30 siblings and cousins to graduate from college.
He did. He also became the first in his family to visit the U.S. Capitol, spending 10 weeks in Washington in 2010 as a congressional intern through the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a program for selected Cal State students. And he was elected president of the Associated Students Inc., a student-government and services organization with an annual budget of $2.1-million.
Mr. Prado helped lead the annual March student protest on Sacramento, an event that brings thousands to the state capital arguing for more money for higher education. "I think they hear us, but it never materializes in their policy," says Mr. Prado, reflecting on the day a few months later.
One particular frustration: the 17-credit-per-quarter cap at Cal State- East Bay, which is hitting especially hard at students in the sciences. With many lab courses worth five or even six credits, the limit makes it hard for science majors to carry a full load.
A phone call from his girlfriend that day added to the disappointment. She was back in Stockton, hoping to see an adviser about taking some classes at San Joaquin Delta Community College. But when she arrived about 9 a.m., she found herself at the back of the line that looked like one for a popular ride at Disneyland. "They told her to come back at 6 or 5 a.m." the next day if she wanted to get in, he says.
For Susan Opp, Cal State's struggles are personal. Before becoming an associate vice president for graduate studies at the East Bay campus in 2010, she spent 20 years on the biology faculty, teaching entomology. She got her undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University in 1979, and this year her son graduated from the East Bay campus, "so I have seen it from a parent's point of view too."