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Saturday, Jan 26 2013 11:00 PM

New reality for state universities

By The Bakersfield Californian

Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State address, delivered to mostly good reviews last week, was an upbeat message of renewed optimism. Not everyone saw it that way, of course, least of all California State University officials, who were expecting much more money in the governor's budget. They're not going to get it.

Brown, almost jovial in his State of the State, was considerably more sober in his conversation with university officials a few days earlier at a CSU board of trustees meeting in Long Beach. The occasion demanded that sort of demeanor: Things are only getting marginally better for California's system of public universities. In no uncertain terms, Brown told board members that it's time to live within their means.

CSU officials had requested a $371 million increase in this year's budget, but Brown alloted only $125 million more in his proposed spending plan. That won't be enough to admit as many new students in the coming year as CSU officials would like, but they said it will stop the hemorrhaging.

Their $371 million expectation, Brown said, was "more dream than reality."

That $125 million figure is about the best that can be done for now. Yes, in passing Proposition 30 last November, voters authorized restored funding to the state's higher education system. But the newly authorized tax increase isn't enough to fully restore the CSU. Brown has proposed small, incremental increases in funding of about 5 percent in coming years. A return to previous spending levels, which have been cut by $1 billion in recent years, is nowhere in the foreseeable future.

Those incremental increases alone won't cut it. Brown is pushing for the CSU to find new efficiencies both to balance its books and trim the cost of a college education for students. For too long, the state's higher education systems have mostly avoided austerity measures.

As the governor's proposed budget explained, from 2007‐08 to 2012‐13, while other public agencies were cutting back, University of California spending increased by 15 percent and CSU's by 3 percent. The increase was funded not by additional state spending but by massive tuition increases that brought in an additional $1.4 billion for UC and $1 billion for CSU. As Brown declared in his State of the State to a bipartisan standing ovation, students can't continue to be the main funders of the state's higher education system.

It's time now for the CSU and UC to heed the governor's call and find creative new ways to reduce costs. In an encouraging sign, they have already embraced some promising ideas. Both systems, at Brown's urging, are exploring how they might offer popular and required courses online. In a move to reduce costs and move students more quickly toward graduation, CSU will start limiting the number of credits required for most bachelor's degrees.

Other challenges are more intractable. For example, Brown wants the CSU system to improve its deplorable four-year graduation rate, currently at 16 percent. He also wants a more streamlined approach to transfers between community colleges and the CSU and UC.

Higher education, especially the public university system that presumably makes schooling affordable for the California masses, is vital if the state's fledgling comeback is to gain traction. But, as important as they are, the UC and CSU systems are not exempt from California's annual budgetary pain. They don't seem to recognize that. UC and CSU officials proposed budgets that call for increases in state funding of about 12 percent and 18 percent, respectively, from the preceding year. By comparison, over the past three years, personal income growth in California has averaged slightly less than 4 percent per year. California taxpayers cannot sustain institutions whose cost growth greatly outpaces the state's income growth.

It is simply unsustainable, and Brown said it best at the CSU trustees' meeting: "It's a tight ship we're running and it's going to get tighter." Better batten down the hatches, then, and get even more creative.

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