The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Politicians are the same all over: they promise to build a bridge even where there is no river."... ...Nikita Khrushchev.

Commentary of the Day - August 9, 2003:  A Sea Change in the California State University System?

As most readers of the IP know, California is in the midst of unprecedented political upheaval.  In our last gubernatorial election the aptly named Gray Davis edged out political neophyte Bill Simon, Jr. for the privilege of presiding over the worst deficit in the history of the state.  Before the election Davis talked of red ink in the $18 billion dollar range; however, once he was safely in office the true dimensions of the $38 billion deficit were made public.  This deficit represented a remarkable change in fortune for a state government that was running significant surpluses a few short years ago.  However, the confluence of a major energy crisis (that now appears to have been artificially induced by the avarice of energy traders such as Enron and Dynegy), the collapse of the "" industry, the Bush recession, and some really dumb decisions on the part of a term-limited amateur state legislature that simultaneously cut taxes and increased spending were enough to produce a sea of red ink.  To be fair, as a percentage of the total budget, the deficit run up by the Davis administration actually is smaller than that run up by the Bush administration in the past year.

President Bush, however, has a major advantage over Davis when it comes to deficits.  Bush's administration can print money, while Davis and his minions must come up with a balanced budget.  Well, at least one that looks balanced.  The prospect of actually closing the $38 billion gap was enough to throw the midget minds in the state legislature into a fit of paralysis.  The Democrats did not want to reduce per capita spending to the rates that were prevalent before the boom of the late 1990's; and, the Republicans did not want to raise tax rates to the levels that were prevalent during that era.  The professional politicians of an earlier, less partisan era probably would have retired to their favorite Sacramento watering hole, and would have hammered out a compromise budget that preserved essential services (and the state's credit rating), cut some of the less essential frills, and raised taxes on sin and the wealthy to cover the remaining gap.  But compromise is not a word in the dictionary of our term-limited amateur ideologues in the state legislature.  They spent months locked in a pissing match over "principle" while the state's credit rating sunk lower by the minute.

Conservative Congressman Darrell Issa took advantage of the public distaste for the mess in Sacramento by bankrolling a "recall Davis" movement that easily collected sufficient signatures to get the measure on the ballot.  Issa obviously used his wealth in an attempt to carry out a right-wing coup that would have installed him as governor.  Unfortunately, for car-alarm magnate Issa, he was too smart by half.  B-movie actor and moderate Republican Arnold Schwartzenegger jumped into the recall race, freezing out both the right-wing Issa and moderate Republican Dick Riordan.  Issa gave a tearful withdrawal speech after he realized that he had spent $1.7 million of his own money funding Schwartzenegger's campaign for governor.  Meanwhile the Democrats are in a state of disarray.  The solid wall of support for Davis has cracked with the entry of Lieutenant Governor Bustamante and Insurance Commissioner Garamendi into the replace Davis race.

What does all this have to do with the California State University system?  Well, while everyone was focussed on the recall, the legislature finally passed a budget for the current fiscal year, and the governor signed it in the dead of night.  This budget has serious implications for the way the California State University system does business.  The budget for the 23 campus CSU system is a complicated document that includes income contributions from the state general fund, a variety of student fees (which have increased close to 50% over the past year), and various reimbursements from activities such as extended education.  It also includes a variety of structural costs such as employee compensation, benefits, retirement costs, utility costs, etc.  The bottom line of the CSU budget actually has increased by about 2.5% over last year's budget; however, because of increases in structural costs (including a major increase in the amount that the CSU must contribute to the retirement system to make up for the loss of investment income) the amount of money that the system has available for its primary purpose -- educating students -- actually has declined by about $345 million according to estimates from the CSU Chancellor's Office.  This means that we have to educate more students (about 5% more throughout the system this year) with about 10% less money than we had last year.

Of course, the immediate effect has been a series of belt tightening measures.  The number of course sections available to students this fall has been reduced by about 10%.  Some 2500 open instructional and staff positions have been "frozen", and the individual campuses have received strict instructions from the Chancellor's Office to reduce enrollments on the campuses to specified "target" values in order to maintain "quality".  This represents a remarkable change in attitude, and may indeed portend a "sea change" in the way the CSU does business.

Because of a "tidal wave" of students coming out of California's high schools, the urban campuses -- particularly those in southern California -- in recent years regularly have enrolled students well in excess of their budgeted enrollment targets.  This practice was encouraged by the central administration and individual campus administrators in order to show the legislature that the system was doing its part to accommodate the "tidal wave".  The assumption built into this practice was that the legislature would come up with enough money the next year to cover the previous year's excess.

This game was played to the extreme at the IP's institution.  Here at Krispy Kreme U. "access" became a mantra, and some wags suggested that our president never met a student that he wouldn't admit to the university.  This game worked pretty well while budgets were increasing, but it also meant that at any given time we were educating a thousand or more students than we were being paid to educate by the state.  But with the present budget crunch there no longer is an expectation that the legislature will send us more money next year to cover those extra students.  Instead, Krispy Kreme U and many other campuses  are struggling with the need to reduce actual enrollment to the funded target enrollment level.

This is being done by restricting or closing entirely new admissions for the spring semester (or spring quarter), and by rationing the classes that are available to students who already are enrolled.  At Krispy Kreme U. the majority of students likely will not be able to take as many classes as they want this year.  Indeed, another 320 sections are expected to be cut in the spring in addition to the 10% cut that already are in place.  Most students will take more semesters to graduate than they had anticipated, and since fees in the system are not directly tied to the number of units a student takes each semester these students will end up paying more than a 50% increase in fees.

But the real sea change is likely to come a few semesters down the road.  No longer will "access" trump "quality" in system admissions policies.  In reality, the CSU admits a fairly large number of students who are "qualified" only in the sense that they meet the subject distribution and grade requirements for admission.  These are students who, in reality, do not posses the needed academic skills to pursue college level work.  Many drop out after a few semesters in spite of efforts at remediation, some because they just don't have what it takes to handle college level work others because they lack the motivation to overcome their weak academic backgrounds.  Perhaps as many as 10 to 15% of our students fall into these categories.

Now that budget constraints have forced rationing of resources in the CSU, we can expect to hear some serious discussions about how we admit students.  Most likely this will be done by a stricter adherence to our published admission criteria, and by a reduced tolerance for students who need "remediation" in critical areas like English and mathematics.  The net effect may well be to discourage those students who are not all that serious about a college education, and to send the message to the K-12 sector that they have to do a better job preparing students for college.  In the long run though, there is likely to be a refreshing renewed focus on quality  in the admission process.

This will not be done without much gnashing of teeth.  The CSU is regarded widely as an engine of social mobility and opportunity for students from the lower socio-economic strata.  It will be a challenge to retain these features of the system while coping with the need to ration resources.  The IP thinks that it can be done....

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