How California's Budget Crisis Colors Minorities' College Hopes

Changes to the California's public higher-education system will affect large number of students of color attending any of the Golden State's approximately 145 public colleges and universities.

California Gov. Jerry Brown's budget, released earlier this month, moderately increases state spending on higher ed and freezes tuition for the next four years. The budget also encourages state colleges and universities to rein in costs, increase graduation rates, and reduce the amount of time it takes students to earn a degree.

Although Brown's changes haven't been framed as a minority issue per se, they will affect many students of color across the state.

In California, "almost anything you do to the higher-education system one way or another is going to affect students of color," said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, Calif.  "I would say these are modest constructive initiatives that will help California students and certainly will help students of color - especially if we make sure we can serve more students at a reasonable cost."

In 2011, 68.2 percent of the students in the University of California system were nonwhite, as were 67.6 percent enrolled at California State University schools, according to university statistics (together, student enrollment in the two state systems exceeded 603,000). That's up from 61.4 percent and 62.1 percent at UC and CSU, respectivel,y in 2002.  Specific to Hispanics, with California having the nation's highest population, in 2011, 29.3 percent of students at CSU were Hispanic, as were 16.6 percent of UC students.

That demographic trend is expected to continue. During the 2010-11 school year, 26.3 percent of students attending California's public elementary and secondary schools were white, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly 51 percent were Hispanic, 11.5 percent Asian, and 6.6 percent black.

Many students of color - particularly Latinos - are more likely to be low income, the first in their families to go to college, and in some cases, more likely to speak English as a second language, said Enrique Murillo, executive director of Latino education and advocacy days at CSU (San Bernardino).

"Latino students have been on a very dangerous trajectory over the last few years," Murillo said.

In 2010, black and Hispanic students were less likely than their white counterparts to graduate on time from California's public colleges, according to Chronicle of Higher Education numbers. Only 19 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students graduated in four years; 38 percent of white students and 42 percent of Asian students did.

For Latinos, the cost of college is among the top barriers, Murillo said.

The tuition freeze itself offers some relief for California students currently enrolled at public universities, said Tom Rivera, vice president of external affairs for the Associated Students at San Diego State.

"It's a good step in the right direction - as far as the tuition freeze goes," he said. But students remain leery. "What if something happens that's unforeseen?" like a bigger state deficit or a cut in federal funding, Rivera wonders.

The financial stakes are higher for students of color, national numbers show. Black and Latino students are more likely that their white and Asian peers to take on debt while earning a bachelor's degree, according to a 2010 report by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center. Among blacks, 81 percent took on debt, and 67 percent of Hispanics, compared with 64 percent of white students and 60 percent of Asians. Of those who borrowed to fund their bachelor's degrees, 27 percent of blacks took on a total debt of more than $30,500; less than 16 percent of students from the other groups did.

The governor's budget is a step in the right direction, said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. But in the next four years if the state doesn't engage in significant additional higher-ed reform to address the needs of a changing California population and new economic realities, the tuition freeze will be for naught, she said. Universities will simply raise tuition when the freeze is over.

"He's working around the edges of a really big problem," Finney said. "If you're going to freeze tuition, really make it worthwhile. Nearly everyone needs some education or training after high school. And the system was not set up to do that."

The system was not designed to offer near-universal access to a student population comprised of a large number of immigrants and students who are the first in their families to go to college, she said.

Too, the economy has changed. When the current educational system was designed and implemented in the late 1950s, '60s, and '70s, people could earn a middle-class income with a high-school diploma. That's no longer true, Finney said. To get into the American middle class, people must have some training.

"So it's the context that has changed, and we're still driving a 1955 Chevrolet that's a gas guzzler, and the freeways are really crowded," she said. "We need to do something else."

Brown's budget modestly increased state funding for higher ed by $1.3 billion - 5.3 percent over last year. The University of California and California State University had requested increases of 12 and 18 percent, respectively. The budget calls for 5 percent increases for UC, CSU, and Hastings for the next two years, and 4 percent increases for the subsequent two years.

In addition to the funding increases, Brown's budget makes a number of changes to the state's higher-ed system. Among them:

  • Expanding the delivery of courses through technology. The budget sets aside $16.9 million for community colleges and $10 million for UC and CSU to create a virtual campus that offers statewide access to at least 250 new courses. The universities will also create a universal delivery infrastructure and expand other options for students to access instruction in other environments and to earn college credit for demonstrated knowledge and skills by taking exams.
  • Capping the number of units subsidized by the state per student. For the first two years, students will be allowed to take no more than 150 percent of units needed to complete a degree; in later years, they will be allowed to accrue no more than about one additional year of coursework. Students who exceed the unit caps will have to pay the difference themselves. The government is targeting those students - the so-called super seniors - who take longer than five years to earn a degree. Fewer than 30 percent of degree-seeking students at the state's community colleges earn a degree or certificate within six years. At CSU, 16 percent of students complete a degree in four years; 60 percent do at UC.
  • Changing the way community colleges are funded. Currentl, community colleges are funded based on the number of students enrolled by a term's 20 percent mark. Brown's budget would apportion funding based on students who complete classes at the end of the term. The current system does not incentivize community colleges to ensure that student complete the term, Brown wrote in his budget. When students withdraw after the 20-percent mark, the state foots the bill for students who are no longer in class.