State's colleges brace for hit

California's master plan for higher education, the product of an era of seemingly limitless opportunity, was nearly 30 years old when Nicolette Lafranchi was born in 1988. By the time she turned 20, the plan was working well for her, just as it had for tens of millions of students before her.

That's less true now.

In the wake of massive cuts in California's three-tiered system of public colleges and universities, Lafranchi no longer can transfer from Santa Rosa Junior College to San Francisco State University in December as she had planned, because midyear admissions were eliminated.

That isn't her biggest problem. A fall statistics class she needs is full. Without it, she faces the possibility of forfeiting her health insurance, which requires her to carry 12 college credits. A scholarship she had been receiving was eliminated.

"It's a lot at one time," she said. "You know, it's kind of sad. You think it's the state of California and we're the next generation. We have to take over from the baby boomers, but we're going to be a group of unedu- cated people."

California's higher education system, created to offer an opportunity for advancement to any resident, has seen hard times before. But the deep cuts imposed by the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger are raising the question of whether the University of California, California State University and the nation's largest network of community colleges can uphold their reputations for quality, or whether a public higher educational system once called the world's finest may be in decline.

"This notion of the California dream, the idea that every adult could go to college, we've been hacking away at that during every recession for the past 25 years, and this year may well be it," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Education.

California's college and university systems, which educate 2.3 million students annually, have roots in the state's early days, but their modern history began in 1960, when the educational master plan was approved. It called for all state residents to have access to tuition-free, public higher education and outlined the mission of the three levels of colleges. The system has been credited with helping to shape California's economy.

Leaders: We have no choice

The governor and legislative leaders acknowledge that the cuts will be severe, but say they have no choice.

Campuses are raising fees, shedding courses, slashing enrollment and asking fa- culty and staff to take furlough days. Class sizes are up, library hours are down, and new programs and schools are on hold.

According to the Department of Finance, the state is expected to spend about $8.7 billion in general revenue funds on UC, Cal State and community colleges in the coming fiscal year. That would be a 17 percent drop from two years ago. Federal stimulus money will offset some of that, but how long that will last is uncertain.

UC's state general revenue budget of $2.6 billion will be 20 percent less than it was two years ago. Cal State is seeing a similar percentage drop to about $2.3 billion.

California's community colleges are not taking as big a hit as the university systems -- down 7 percent from the past two years, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. But the reductions come just as the recession is driving newly laid-off workers to their doors.

Critics contend that UC is aiming the cuts at undergraduates to increase political pressure, and should instead tap other income sources.

Several analysts said they expect raids on UC's blue-chip faculty, many of whom face 10 percent salary cuts.

"Don't be surprised if they leave," said Barmak Nassirian, an executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "There's a big difference between having 10 Nobel laureates on campus and having none."

Cal State at greater risk

UC's enormous reservoir of federal and private research grants, hospital revenues and formidable fund-raising operations shield it more than Cal State from the state's deficits. State funding accounts for less than one-sixth of the UC system's operating budget.

Cal State has decried funding shortfalls and student fee hikes for years, but its main issue until this year was lack of support for growth.

Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed now frets about plans to reduce enrollment by 40,000 in the next few years, from a current population of 450,000.

Cal State has raised student fees by 32 percent for the coming school year and is imposing 24 furlough days for all employees, including college presidents.

The UC system has embraced austerity by cutting freshman enrollment by 6 percent and hiking undergraduate fees by 9.3 percent. Course offerings will be reduced by about 10 percent this fall. Average class sizes will be about 60, up 20 percent from three years ago.

Throughout the UC system, which enrolls about 225,000 students and employs 180,000 faculty and staff, other cuts are under way. Programs are ending, hiring freezes imposed, and library hours are being reduced.

"I don't think the sky has fallen yet," said UC President Mark G. Yudof, "but I look at these trends and ask myself how long can you reduce course offerings and still hold your head up and say you are still offering students a high-quality education."