Twenty-five years ago, California higher education was designed to be virtually free for residents. The state paid for 90 percent of students’ education, and students had to pay only the remaining 10 percent.
Today is a much different story. This academic year marks the first time in California’s history where students pay for more of their education than the state does — students pay for 59 percent of Cal Poly’s operating budget this year, while 41 percent is paid by the state.
Vice president of finance Larry Kelley said this is a reflection of not only the state’s economic situation, but also its change in public policy.
“The economy is part of it,” he said. “But I think there’s a question. And I’m not sure when, and if, it will be addressed fully, but it seems that in California we’ve said that we no longer value public higher education to the extent that we used to.”
The California State University (CSU) system has met what Kelley called “the perfect storm” of declining economy and a shift in public policy by increasing tuition for students.
“I think the challenge before us in public education in California is how do we guarantee the quality, when the public resources are being withdrawn,” he said. “And the answer to date has been with fees.”
But Kelley said additional fees alone will not be able to solve the university’s problems. Cal Poly has also cut millions of dollars in spending.
“It isn’t that we’re looking to the fees to directly replace what’s been taken,” he said. “There’s still a $29 million gap, roughly. We’ve got 100 fewer employees now. We’ve got fewer sections, fewer courses being taught. We’ve got larger classes. We’ve got different cleaning standards.”
Steve Hamilton, Cal Poly’s economics department chair, said what the university is seeing is part of a larger, nationwide trend.
“Overall, this has been the trend in higher education,” he said. “We’ve seen less spending from the public sector, and more spending at the university level being required to be paid by students.”
Going to college is becoming more of an investment in one’s future, Hamilton said.
“In today’s economic climate, you will see students going to school anyways for their own private benefit, as opposed to the more public benefit of having an educated population,” he said.
To Hamilton, it is harder to justify the state subsidizing the education of an individual now. This has started to erode the old model of inexpensive public education used in the past in California, he said.
“Given that a student has the means to go to school, it’s a good financial decision,” he said. “And there’s no real reason, in my mind, the government should stand behind that with taxpayer money, and help the student make what’s really a private investment decision.”
Hamilton said Cal Poly would be more successful as a private university, due to its polytechnic nature and what he called its “unsustainable” current financial model. He does not, however, see the switch from public to private as an actual possibility for the university.
“If we were to raise our tuition here, we would still have student demand, because the skills we teach here are very valuable,” Hamilton said. “Those skills are also expensive, to get a good engineering program, a good physics and mathematics program (and) a good economics or business program. Those are very expensive.”
Political science professor Allen Settle disagrees with Hamilton.
“The whole name of the game of our system, is to be effective as a country,” he said. “What is the skill level of your work force? If you don’t have that skill level, you’ll earn Third World wages even though you’re living in the United States.”
Settle said student fees supplying more than the state puts an undue burden on students and creates problems for them.
“(The fee increases are) going in the wrong direction,” he said. “At what point does the student start to break apart and say, ‘I can’t handle it anymore?’”
Though Hamilton does not claim to have all the answers for solving the CSU’s financial problems, he offers one solution: raise tuition, but better direct financial aid to students who need it.
Hamilton said until California can solve its economic problems, asking it to fully fund universities across the state is unrealistic. He said students should bear more of the burden for paying for their own education, which ultimately results in a better future for themselves.
But he said he realizes this is not feasible for all California residents, to pay private university tuition for a Cal Poly education. He said by targeting students in a more efficient fashion with financial aid for those who need it, the education will be open to those who want to achieve it.
“There is a slice of the population that can’t afford to come to school and needs some help,” Hamilton said. “We could do a better job with more limited resources by better directing those resources to the students who need them.”
Director of financial aid at Cal Poly Lois Kelly said financial aid is one of the many things affected when budget cuts come to public education. The California Student Aid Commission was adversely affected by cuts in funding last year, but she said it’s too early to tell how that will affect financial aid for Cal Poly students.
“It’s a strange world in financial aid,” she said. “What’s here today may not necessarily be here in the future.”