When California college students return to campus this fall, they'll find crowded classrooms, less access to faculty and counselors, fewer campus services and more difficulty getting classes they need to graduate — all while paying higher fees.
The state's financial crisis is battering its world-renowned system of higher education, reducing college opportunities for residents and threatening California's economic recovery.
"I think (students) are going to feel the crunch," said Diana Heredia, student body president at California State University, Stanislaus. "Classes will be more packed, and I know students are wondering ... 'How long will it take me to graduate now?' "
To close its massive budget deficit, the state has slashed funding to its 110 community colleges, the 23-campus California State University and the 10-campus University of California, one of the nation's leading research institutions.
The schools have responded by boosting fees, turning away record numbers of students, expanding class sizes, eliminating programs, laying off staff, and furloughing professors and other employees.
At CSU, Stanislaus, that means cuts of $9 million out of a $96 million budget.
Officials still are working out how many fall courses they'll have to cut, but said students certainly will feel the change.
"I think what (students) will find is fewer courses available, less choice among courses and larger classes," said interim Provost Herman Lujan.
Lujan said the university is trying to keep the courses students need to graduate on time, but said graduating in four years still will be extremely difficult.
University employees also are on the chopping block. Part-time lecturers will be especially vulnerable as the university decides how to trim the cost of those employees. The lecturers, who make up 40 percent of CSUS faculty, could lose their jobs or be given fewer courses.
Nonacademic staffers will take 24 furlough days, with their first one today, saving the university $5 million.
"The total magnitude of the cuts imposed in California is unprecedented," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "In the 30 years I've been watching higher education policy, I've never seen a state implement budget cuts of this size and scope."
California's future is at risk if fewer people earn college degrees, laid-off workers fail to develop the skills employers demand, and universities lose their ability to recruit and retain top researchers, experts say.
Fewer grads to meet need for skills
An April study by the Public Policy Institute of California projected the state would face a shortage of nearly 1 million college-educated workers by 2025 and warned that funding cuts would worsen the skills gap.
"We'll see a decline in the number of college graduates when the economy demands more," said Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
For decades, other states and countries have looked to California's three-tiered system of higher education as a model for access, affordability and academic excellence. Its 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education opened college to all residents and helped make the state an engine of economic growth and technological innovation.
But the steep economic downturn has forced California to make drastic cuts to education, health care and social services.
The UC and CSU systems will receive 20 percent less state funding this year than they did two years ago.
The UC, which has about 220,000 students, is raising student fees 9 percent, reducing freshman enrollment 6 percent and cutting at least $300 million from the budgets of its 10 campuses.
The UC also is forcing most of its 180,000 employees to take furloughs and pay cuts of as much as 10 percent, which officials say will make it harder to stop competing universities from poaching academic stars.
About 800 employees at UC Merced will begin taking furloughs Sept. 1, said spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas.
While no full- or part-time faculty will lose their jobs, she said hiring has slowed and the campus won't be able to offer as many classes as planned.
"We're not cutting any classes, but we were planning to expand classes and faculty hires," Istas said.
She said students likely will notice the change most this fall in their pocketbooks as fees increase.
"That's something all students and their families are concerned about," Istas said.
The CSU, the nation's largest four-year university system with 450,000 students, plans to cut enrollment by 40,000 over two years. Nearly all 47,000 employees have agreed to take furloughs two days per month, and fees for in-state undergraduates will rise 32 percent to $4,827 a year.
CSU officials say the fees are relatively low and the increase will be offset by expanded financial aid, but advocates say many low-income students may be unable to attend.
California's community colleges will receive almost 6 percent less state funding than last year, even as campuses struggle to accommodate a surge of military veterans and newly unemployed workers seeking training for new jobs.
The colleges - including Modesto Junior and Columbia colleges — are raising fees 30 percent, shrinking teaching staffs and reducing class schedules.
Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, said he expects the community college system, which had about 2.7 million students last year, to enroll 250,000 fewer students this year.
"There are more Californians that need community college than ever, and we're not going to be able to meet that need," Lay said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.