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Posted on Oct 2, 2012
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By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

It was the greatest education system the world had ever seen. They built it into the eucalyptus-dotted Berkeley hills and under the bright lights of Los Angeles, down in the valley in Fresno and in the shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains. Hundreds of college campuses, large and small, two-year and four-year, stretching from California’s emerald forests in the north to the heat-scorched Inland Empire in the south.  Each had its own DNA, but common to all was this: they promised a “public” education, accessible and affordable, to those with means and those without, a door with a welcome mat into the ivory tower, an invitation to a better life.

Then California bled that system dry. Over three decades, voters starved their state—and so their colleges and universities—of cash. Politicians siphoned away what money remained and spent it more on imprisoning people, not educating them. College administrators grappled with shriveling state support by jacking up tuitions, tacking on new fees, and so asking more each year from increasingly pinched students and families. Today, many of those students stagger under a heap of debt as they linger on waiting lists to get into the over-subscribed classes they need to graduate.

California’s public higher education system is, in other words, dying a slow death. The promise of a cheap, quality education is slipping away for the working and middle classes, for immigrants, for the very people whom the University of California’s creators held in mind when they began their grand experiment 144 years ago. And don’t think the slow rot of public education is unique to California: that state’s woes are the nation’s.

Dream Deferred

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Rachel Baltazar lives this grim reality. In 2010, after a decade working as a preschool teacher and a teacher’s assistant, the 28-year-old Baltazar went back to school, choosing De Anza, a two-year community college near San Jose. She remembers the sticker shock when she first arrived on campus—the cost per class had spiked startlingly since she graduated from high school in 2000. She would live lean, pick up side jobs, sacrifice what she could to get a degree. “I was willing to be poor and not know if I’m gonna make it,” she told me on a recent morning, her roommate’s cat meowing in the background. “I wanted that degree so I could have a better future.”

She squeezed 20 units of classes into a quarter (not the 12 to 15 of the average student). She worried each week about having enough money for rent, books, food. Still, she thrived. She founded De Anza’s Women Empowered Club, won the school’s President’s Award for overcoming adversity, and planned to transfer to nearby Santa Clara University to double major in psychology and women’s studies—until, that is, a state-funded “Cal Grant” fell through.

She met all the qualifications, she told me, but Cal Grant officials informed her that she was too old. The likely culprit, whatever they claimed: the endless state budget cuts that had forced officials to scale back the Cal Grant program. The experience, she said, shook her fundamental belief in the promise California made to its students: “The impression you have is, ‘I do a great job at De Anza and I’ll get to the next level.’ The reality is there might not be a place for you.”

This is something new in what was once known as “the golden state.” For nearly as long as colleges and universities operated in California, there was a place for every student with the grades to get in. Classes were cheap, professors accessible, and enrollments grew at a rapid clip. When my own father started at Mt. San Antonio College in southern California in August 1976, anyone 18 or older could enroll, and a semester’s worth of classes cost at most $24. Then, like so many Californians, he transferred to a four-year college, the University of California-Davis, and paid a similarly paltry $220 a quarter. Davis’s 2012 per-quarter tuition price: $4,620.

Today, public education in California is ever less public. It is cheaper for a middle-class student to attend Harvard (about $17,000 for tuition, room, and board with the typical financial-help program included) than Cal State East Bay, a mid-tier school that’ll run that same middle-class student $24,000 a year. That speaks to Harvard’s largesse when it comes to financial aid, but also the relentless rise of tuition costs in California. For the first time in generations, California’s community colleges and state universities are turning away qualified new students and shrinking their enrollments as state funding continues its long, slow decline. Many students who do gain admission struggle to enroll in the classes they need—which, by the way, cost more than they ever have. “We’re in a new era,” says John Aubrey Douglass, an expert on the history of higher education in California. He’s not exaggerating. Not a bit.

“In the Valley with the People”

California would not exist as we know it today without higher education. At its peak, the state’s constellation of community colleges and Cal State and University of California campuses had no rival. It was the crown jewel of American education.

Abraham Lincoln launched the college-building craze when, in 1862, as the bullets flew and the bodies fell on the battlefields of the Civil War, he signed the Morrill Act, giving every state a huge tract of federal land with which to build a public university. In 1869, California joined the craze by opening the University of California. One newspaper editorial hailed it as “the perfect structure, a magazine of new thoughts and new motives, ready for the new and bright day of the future.” Another supporter declared that it would be a “mighty anchor in the stream of time.”


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