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California university system
Christopher Viney, an engineering professor at UC Merced, who bemoans California universities’ decline. Credit: Bea Ahbeck

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — They were once the envy of the world for the access they offered to high-quality education for all students at a low price. But California’s public colleges and universities delivered something different to Andrew Hotchkiss when he applied for admission two years ago: a punch to the gut.

Hotchkiss, now 21 and from Fontana, Calif., was snubbed by the selective Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego campuses of the public University of California system, but never expected California State University at Long Beach to turn him down too. After all, any California resident who is eligible for a UC campus, which Hotchkiss was, is all but guaranteed entry to the Cal State system. For years, it was a safety net of sorts. That’s no longer true.

Hotchkiss was eventually admitted to UC Riverside but his rejection from the popular and crowded Long Beach campus reflects the turmoil and declining fortunes of what was previously regarded as America’s best state higher education system — and one of the most respected in the world. It also serves as a dramatic symbol of how years of budget cuts at public universities and colleges are taking their toll in disturbing and sometimes surprising ways.

“I was incredibly surprised” to be turned down by Long Beach, Hotchkiss said on a dazzlingly sunny April day at UC Riverside.

“California is a harbinger of what’s to come.”

He might not have been, had he considered that, between 2007 and 2012, California trimmed $2 billion from the Cal State and UC budgets, essentially cutting per-student funding in half. At the same time, it gave more spots to out-of-state and international students who pay the full cost of their educations while turning down Hotchkiss and thousands of other qualified Californians.

At UC campuses, California residents pay $14,000 in tuition and fees per year, compared to $38,000 for nonresidents. Californians pay $5,472 for the Cal State system, while nonresidents pay an additional $372 per semester unit or $248 per quarter unit, which works out to at least $8,928 extra per year for full-time out-of-state students.

California once showed the world how a state could guarantee a college education for nearly every resident, but then it failed to provide the long-term funding to do it, said Martha Kanter, a former U.S. education undersecretary and California community college leader.

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California university system
Cal students at UC Berkeley. Credit: Alison Yin/Hechinger Report

Rather than a beacon, she said, it has become a warning: States without long-term plans for funding public colleges and universities run the risk of watching them deteriorate.

“California is a harbinger of what’s to come,” said Kanter, now a visiting professor of higher education at New York University.

It’s a long descent from the idealistic 1960 blueprint for the state’s colleges and universities, called the Master Plan for Higher Education, which in spite of its uninspiring title promised “college for everyone,” as the New York Times reported then.

The master plan laid out specific roles for California’s colleges and universities. The UC campuses would be the state’s research universities, the Cal State ones would offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and the community colleges would provide lower-division courses and a route through which students could eventually transfer to the universities.

This was not just a new vision for education. It was one of the reasons more and more people were drawn west to California, said Christopher Viney, a U.K.-educated professor of engineering at UC Merced.

“It’s why California became the destination of choice for people around the U.S.,” said Viney. “It’s a pity it wasn’t sustainable.”

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Other states wondered for decades how they could have something as good as the University of California.

Between 2007 and 2012, California trimmed $2 billion from the California State and University of California, essentially cutting per-student funding in half.

“I wanted one, to be frank,” said Janet Napolitano, now head of the UC system, reflecting on the time when she was governor of neighboring Arizona.

But the master plan had a serious flaw: It never guaranteed the state would finance its promise of university admission to any student who met UC or Cal State criteria. With a steadily growing prison population and K-12 schools requiring more tax dollars, plus the recession kicking in, the state started leaning on higher education to bear the brunt, starting in 2008.

“We’re turning away students who have done everything we’ve asked them to do,” said Hans Johnson, a fellow and education researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California. “That’s where the master plan has eroded most.”

In the wake of the economic downturn, California’s higher education system, like public universities nationwide, fell prey to deep budget cuts, and continues to spend far less on higher education than it did before the recession, when adjusted for inflation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in May that all but three states — Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota — were spending less per student than they had before the recession.

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California university system
Cal students in the Doe Library at UC Berkeley. Credit: Alison Yin/Hechinger Report

In California, higher education has lost ground to other budget priorities, especially prisons. In 2011-12, the state spent 82 cents on higher education for every dollar spent on prisons, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The state spends about $7,800 per college student, about $1,000 less than it did in 2008 and $11,000 less than Alaska, the national leader. California tuition has spiked by more than 60 percent since 2008.

Unlike K-12 schools and community colleges, the state’s universities are not guaranteed public funding, leading to an annual standoff with the governor and legislators.

This year, for instance, Napolitano spent months battling Gov. Jerry Brown over UC’s proposed tuition hikes, which Napolitano argued were necessary after years of state budget cuts. Brown countered that the university would not receive additional state funds unless it kept tuition flat. In the end, UC agreed to cap resident tuition for two years.

Higher education comprised 10.3 percent of the state budget in 2007-08, but just 7 percent by 2012; it rose to 8.7 percent in the recently enacted 2015-16 budget.

If funding fails to bounce back significantly and quickly, said Timothy White, chancellor of the Cal State system, “We’ll have fewer students, lousy IT, and, ‘Oh my God, I hope this roof doesn’t go.’”

Already, overcrowding, tuition hikes, and budget cuts at California’s 112 community colleges have kept thousands of students from starting or continuing their college educations, while popular Cal State campuses like Long Beach, San Diego and San Luis Obispo have turned away droves of in-state students because of a lack of capacity — as they made room for out-of-state and international students who pay more. And universities in Napolitano’s former state of Arizona are recruiting California students to go there instead.

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The UC system admitted about 3,400 more non-Californians for the academic year starting this fall compared to last fall, and 1,000 fewer California applicants, the universities report.

There have been some efforts to address the problems. Trying to solve a shortage of skilled workers, the community colleges this year got legislative approval to offer a handful of bachelor’s degrees for the first time. (This is not the first time lines between the systems have blurred, however; in 2005, the Cal State system was allowed to grant doctorates, a privilege previously reserved for UC campuses.)

Nor does everyone still cling to the ideals of the 55-year-old master plan.

The plan “is viewed by some as the Holy Grail or the Bible or the Koran,” Chancellor Constance Carroll of the San Diego Community College District told a Texas conference of community college leaders in April. “But it is also viewed by some like the constitution of Sparta, which didn’t change for 500 years. Now Sparta is a tiny village.”

But, for others, the principles represented by the master plan are worth investing in — and fretting over.

At UC Berkeley, considered by many to be the world’s best public university, biology professor Randy Schekman used his 2013 Nobel Prize winnings to help endow a faculty position in his department. Private donors chipped in the rest.

The way things are going, Berkeley won’t be able to compete with schools like Stanford and Harvard to attract the next generation of Nobel laureates, Schekman said.

“I’ve been at Berkeley for 39 years,” he said. “I know what’s happened, and it’s not pretty. It’s tragic what’s happened.”

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