To educators from around the globe, the California State University system is lauded as a triumph of mass higher education. Its 23 campuses enroll more undergraduates - 426,000 - than any other four-year higher education system in the United States. For CSU students, many of them the first in their family to attend college and many of them minorities, higher education is the ticket out of poverty and into the New Economy.
What's good for these students is also good for the well-being of the state. From the schoolhouse to the high-tech campus, Cal State graduates are indispensable to the state's economy. More than half of California's teachers earned their bachelor's degree at CSU, and in the past five years the number of CSU-trained math and science teachers has nearly doubled. Most of the state's nurses, computer engineers, "green collar" workers, civil and mechanical engineers, agriculture professionals, journalists, business managers and public administrators are CSU alumni.
But as one Cal State professor lamented, what used to be the gold standard of higher education has turned into fool's gold. Blame Sacramento. Instead of supporting these universities, lawmakers have inflicted cut after cut - $1.6 billion, a third of the CSU budget, has been lopped off in the past decade. This year's budget reduces state funding by $650 more million, and further cuts could be in store.
Cal State is being bled dry.
Few super-rich donors write big checks to Cal State, foundation money is scarce, and so are research funds, because the mission of these campuses is teaching. That's why, confronted with Sacramento's slash-and-burn actions, CSU has had to raise tuition fees, cut enrollment and shrink programs.
Tuition has quadrupled in the past decade. As a result, a recent report from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California points out, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in Cal State is declining, even though more of these students meet university entrance standards. Tuition increases hit students especially hard when they can't be predicted, because that makes it impossible for them to plan. But unpredictability has been the norm, as state cutbacks have forced CSU to increase tuition fees repeatedly - as much as 32 percent in a single year - to help cover costs.
Meanwhile, 16 CSU campuses, including San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento, are "impacted" - that's bureaucratese for "there's no room at the inn." More than 20,000 qualified applicants were turned away last year. And while 16,000 new students normally enroll in the spring, this year only a handful will be admitted.
On the campuses, the environment for learning is steadily being eroded. "I'm paying more for a poorer quality of education and fewer classes," San Francisco State biology major Sadaf Malik told a USA Today reporter, and that's a widely shared sentiment.
Programs such as nursing and engineering are forced to reject thousands of able candidates because they don't have the resources to meet the demand. Many students discover they can't take the classes they need to graduate in four years; frustrated, some quit.
It's no use telling those students that they should stick it out because college graduates can anticipate more than $1 million in increased lifetime earnings. Many of these young men and women have lived hardscrabble lives. They can calculate today's costs to the penny, but promises of future benefits are mere abstractions.
Listen to the students themselves. "It's a scary future because you don't know what's going to happen," Sean Acselrod, a Cal State Fullerton undergraduate, told a National Public Radio reporter. "If this system crumbles, it's going to become only the rich (who) can go to school."
Penny-wise and pound-foolish - just do the arithmetic. Using standard economic modeling, analysts estimate that every $1 that California invests in the Cal State schools generates $5.43 for the state's economy - that's a return on investment Warren Buffett would jump at. Add the enhanced earnings of the nearly 2 million Cal State alumni and the annual return is more than $23 for each dollar invested.
The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that the state will need 1 million more college graduates by 2025 to keep pace with the mounting demand for skilled workers. That's an additional 60,000 bachelor's degrees a year, and most of those new graduates will have to come from Cal State. Indeed, PPIC calculates that if CSU's enrollment rates hadn't declined in recent years, the state would be well on its way toward closing the looming workforce gap. Instead, students are losing out - and so are we.
Expanding access to higher education is the classic example of doing well by doing good. If the voters pass Proposition 30, the tax initiative backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the trustees have pledged that CSU tuition will be reduced by 9.1 percent. But if the voters say no, CSU will lose an additional quarter of a billion dollars in state support, reducing state funding to its lowest level in 17 years and triggering a midyear tuition increase of $300. Meantime, because of the budget uncertainty, every CSU applicant for fall 2013 is being waitlisted.
It's shooting-fish-in-a-barrel easy to predict the impact. "This is the Code Red we're in," Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom told a New York Times reporter. "We're not cutting into muscle or tissue, we're cutting into artery."
Students know that the November vote will profoundly affect the arc of their lives. David Owen, a San Diego high school junior, worries that he "will not gain admission to my local CSU" unless Prop. 30 passes. "Without funding, they can't possibly cater to all the qualified students in the region, including myself."
Says Ashley Miller, a recent Cal State Fullerton graduate: "We're going to be the future of the country. If they raise (the cost of going to college), this country will go nowhere."
These students appreciate what's at stake. Do the voters?
David L. Kirp a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future."