San Francisco—Every chair was taken. Yet more students jammed into the classroom for the first summer session class of City College of San Francisco's Microcomputer Applications for Business 101. By the time the class started, at least 12 extra people were standing in the aisles and clustered in the doorway. Instructor Hugo Aparicio shouted to the growing crowd that there were only enough computers to accommodate 28 students. Normally, with so many eager learners, CCSF would hire an instructor to teach another section of the class. But the state's $26 billion-plus deficit means there's no money for extra teachers. So Aparicio announced that only the first 28 students who registered for the course could stay. One young woman began to weep, explaining that this course was the last one she needed to graduate. Sophomore Inga Jargal also pleaded. She was having trouble finding any class to fill up her schedule: If she couldn't enroll in another one, she might lose her financial aid and campus job in the registrar's office. It was no use. There simply wasn't room. So, in a scene that is being repeated increasingly in California and other recession-socked states, several otherwise qualified students were sent out into the dark, blustery evening.
"I am worried," says Jargal. "I need an education for my future and my son's future," says the 26-year-old single mom.
The recession, state budget cuts, and hidebound bureaucracies are endangering some of the most important foundations of the American dream—the low-cost, high-quality public colleges created to provide anyone with smarts and diligence the training needed to succeed.
True, a few public higher ed leaders are using the financial downturn as a catalyst to permanently lower costs and increase the graduation rate above today's unimpressive 55 percent. They are reducing waste, streamlining, and modernizing courses.
But some influential analysts say too many colleges are reacting in shortsighted ways that will undermine the institutions themselves, as well as the opportunities for socioeconomic mobility that are at the core of American society. Just when public colleges are being swamped by applicants eager for low-cost classes and the nation needs new ideas to pull the economy out of recession, many schools are shutting classroom doors, raising tuition, crowding courses, canceling extracurriculars, and hobbling research.
"This is an opportunity," says William Bowen, a former Princeton University president who has written several books examining inequities and quality problems in higher education. "Some sensible pruning is occurring. Some good could come out of this." But, he worries, colleges are not using the recession as a spur for the kinds of fundamental changes needed to give more Americans better training.
The financial troubles of community colleges and state universities are far more important than the layoffs at elite schools such as Harvard and Yale that have grabbed headlines. Such storied privates educate perhaps 2 percent of America's 18.3 million college students. Public colleges teach 74 percent.
The Last Straw. The immediate crisis was sparked by an estimated 5 percent—about $4 billion—drop in the amount of money state governments apportioned to higher education for the fiscal year that started July 1. Federal stimulus money can close only part of that gap this year.
A drop of a few billion dollars out of the $79 billion or so that states had spent on higher education in 2008 might not sound severe, but for many colleges, this was a last straw. Even during the boom years, most states weren't increasing college budgets to match rising enrollments. The average public research university got almost $8,350 per student from taxpayers in 2002. By 2006, that had dropped below $7,100, according to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.
Now, public colleges are receiving even less per student. In hard-hit states such as California, Nevada, and Oregon, where colleges have had to slash their budgets by double-digit percentages in the past few months, educational and political leaders say they don't have the time or money to do anything but turn away more students. In California, where tax revenues for higher education are expected to plunge by about $2 billion, the flagship University of California system reduced its incoming freshman class this year by 2,300 and will probably have to reduce it by thousands more in 2010. The schools that are supposed to take the UC overflow, the California State University system, cut enrollment by about 4,000 students this year and are likely to cut 10 times as many next year. The CSU overflow students, along with thousands of unemployed workers hoping for retraining, have been mobbing community colleges. California community college leaders say they simply can't accommodate the influx with a state budget reduction of more than $340 million. They fear they could end up turning away as many as 250,000 students in the coming months.
That's effectively trapping thousands of Californians, like 20-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, into unemployment or low-paying, dead-end jobs. Hendrickson, who is wrapping up her associate's degree at a community college in San Luis Obispo, says she broke down in tears when her adviser told her she couldn't transfer into the overcrowded local state university for at least another year. "I am kind of stuck in all aspects of my life," she says.