California Budget Woes Hurt University System

The University of California is widely heralded as the best public higher education system in the country. Its 10 campuses attract talented faculty and promising students, who pay a fraction of what they'd pay to attend a private university. Now, state budget woes have meant severe cutbacks at U.C. schools.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

Back when I was a college student here, tuition at UC Berkeley was so cheap you could put it on your credit card. I remember my parents paying around $1,300 a year. My dad said it was the best deal in education around: Ivy League academics for a tenth of the price. That was in the 1980s, right around the time "Flashdance" came out. Flash forward, and now going to Berkeley or any other University of California school costs more than 10 grand a year. Still a deal compared to private schools, but not as easy to put on your credit card.

There's been a steady erosion in state funding for the UC system to the point where last year at the height of the budget crisis, the state's contribution to UC was cut by $637 million. That meant staff layoffs, faculty furloughs, canceled classes. And now, many here in California are wondering whether the state's once peerless public university system can ever recover.

One of the stars of that system is UCLA. It's widely considered one of the top research universities in the country. We went there to get a feel for how the budget cuts are playing out on campus.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

BRAND: Just inside the entrance of Haines Hall Room A18 is a placard that reads Maximum Capacity: 82. One hundred and five students have enrolled in the class, Introduction to European Politics. The professor is Michael Lofchie.

Professor MICHAEL LOFCHIE (Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles): So we have a conception of legitimacy that the legitimacy of a government springs from below.

BRAND: Professor Lofchie has been with UCLA's political science department since 1964. He loves his job, even when it means teaching a lecture course without TAs, which is the case now. No teaching assistants means the students don't get a chance to discuss the material outside of class. So at the end of the hour, those with questions grab a few moments with their professor.

ALICE(ph): I'm Alice, by the way.

Prof. LOFCHIE: I know it.

ALICE: Hi. Okay. In the (unintelligible) reading, he was talking about...

BRAND: It's not the class size that worries Lofchie. It's the fact that many students can't get into the courses they want. UCLA has had to cancel more than 100 classes in the last year. Others, like the one we attended, have restricted enrollment because of the TA shortage. It creates a situation, Lofchie says, that's painful to watch.

Prof. LOFCHIE: The beginning of every term becomes a scramble to get into courses. If I'm not in on what they call the first pass, the first round of enrollment, can I beg? Can I plead? Can I email the professor? Can I find some way to cudgel my way into a class?

BRAND: What was your experience? What did the students ask you?

Prof. LOFCHIE: It's terrible. Students come to you, or they email you, or they telephone you and they say, I need this class because it's a prerequisite for the political science major. Or, I need this class because it's a prerequisite for certain upper division courses, and I can't take that next step until I am able to take this class.

So part of what I think is most objectionable about this new environment that we live in is that the interface between the budget crisis and the student falls on the faculty members, so that instead of talking to students about the European social model and whether it would work in the United States, I'm very busy explaining to students why I can't let them into the course.

BRAND: So what do you think is going to happen?

Prof. LOFCHIE: I'm not optimistic. Having seen this university in the '60s, I now find myself commenting on the fact that the past really was better in the university. Students really did get a better education. I hope it improves before I retire. But there's no guarantee that things will get better.

Professor BOB SAMUELS (University of California, Los Angeles): Are there any questions?

BRAND: Across campus, Bob Samuels has a class of 25, mostly freshmen. They're dressed in jeans, sneakers, and blue and gold UCLA sweatshirts.

Prof. SAMUELS: When you're writing your papers, I don't want you to just quote things just to quote them. I want you to critically interact with the material.

BRAND: All UCLA students have to take this writing course. And yet, last summer, all 23 faculty in the writing department received layoff notices. They said, you're teaching obligations will officially cease as of June 30, 2010. Should this situation change, you will, of course, be contacted.

Bob Samuels has not yet been contacted. He thinks he has a 50/50 chance of keeping his job.

Prof. SAMUELS: They haven't suspended the writing requirement. They were thinking of doing that and they haven't done that yet, so they're going to still need writing faculty. It's just a question of how many and, you know, how big the classes gets. They already increased our class size 25 percent this year.

BRAND: In addition to teaching, Bob Samuels is also the head of the union that represents lecturers and librarians. So you can imagine he's got a few bones to pick with the school's administration, which recently announced a student tuition hike of 32 percent.

Prof. SAMUELS: I think a lot of people are waking up and seeing that the university does have a lot of resources. Last year, UC system had a record year of revenue. It brought in a lot of money through the federal stimulus money. It brought in a lot of extra grant money, has incredibly profitable units, the medical unit.

One of the questions is, you know, are they sharing the money? And also, we feel that undergraduate education is constantly being shortchanged, and it really is a question of priorities.

BRAND: Later, at the student union, I meet with two of Samuels' students. First year neuroscience major Rami Bashur(ph) and second year engineering major Robin Armstrong(ph).

Mr. ROBIN ARMSTRONG: Taking classes is one of the most stressful things here.

BRAND: That's Robin.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: As an engineering student, my entire schedule for the next four years is basically mapped out. And I really don't have that much leeway. If I ever can't take a class, I'm basically here for five years, which is difficult because my parents are paying for my entire tuition here.

BRAND: And he says they might have to postpone their retirement if he goes longer than four years. And some of the classes he's in aren't what they used to be.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I'm in material science right now and it used to be material science with a lab. And now we don't get that part.

BRAND: So much for the real-world experience, Robin says.

Now, the other student, Rami Bashur, is in a different situation. Financial aid covers some of his fees. He works to cover the rest.

Mr. RAMI BASHUR: When you have a job, you don't work just like one or two shifts, four hours a week and whatnot. You have like 20 hours or more and you can't easily fit that into your schedule.

BRAND: Rami wants to go to med school, but he's worried about getting into the math, chemistry and physics classes he'll need for that. Like Robin, he's afraid he won't finish in four years.

Mr. BASHUR: I'm considering about my major. Do I want to take stick with neuroscience or do I want to switch to a major that I can graduate quickly? I was thinking at first of double majoring in Arabic and neuroscience. But now, that's out of the question because I don't have the money nor time to do that.

BRAND: Close to two-thirds of UCLA students receive some sort of financial aid. Even during this epic budget crisis, tuition is covered in full for students whose families earn under $60,000 a year. And that'll be raised to 70,000 starting in the fall.

And still, for some, it's not enough. I leave the food court and head over to the building next door, which houses a small food pantry in a closet.

Ms. TUE NGUYEN(ph): This is pretty much the closet. So small effort, but it goes a long way.

BRAND: Tue Nguyen is a recent grad who now works on campus. Part of her job is operating this pantry.

Ms. NGUYEN: A lot of the foods that we usually ask most of the donors that help out is anything that students could easily heat up or, you know, instant Cup O Noodles or pastas and cereals, things like that, things that are easily transferable. And they can come in, check us out between classes in order to have something to eat.

BRAND: Next to the refrigerator, there's a notebook. It's filled with words of thanks from students who used the pantry and details about their circumstances. Some are sleeping in their cars or crashing on friends' couches. Some are undocumented students who don't qualify for financial aid. Some simply don't have the $5 or $10 it would cost to buy lunch.

Many can claim this:

Ms. ANDREA ORTEGA(ph): I'm the first one in my family to come to college.

BRAND: Andrea Ortega is a fourth year student majoring in Chicano studies with minors in math and film.

Ms. ORTEGA: With the budget crisis recently, my dad got laid off. So he wasn't working until recently, so my family was going through a huge struggle. I mean, and even though I get financial aid, I just get it for my tuition. I really don't have that much more money to, like, spend. And what I do, like I ration it out on food and I have to pay for my rent 'cause I live too far to commute.

BRAND: So pretty regularly, she grabs that Cup O Noodles to keep her going on campus. She's close to graduation, but the cost of education is still on her mind.

Ms. ORTEGA: Please don't raise our tuition anymore 'cause how are my brother and sister going to be in school, too? 'Cause my brother is graduating this year, and how is he going to go to school when he won't be able to afford it? And he has dreams, too.

BRAND: So that was the view from campus. For a response from the administration, we've called on Mark Yudof. He's the president of the entire University of California system, which encompasses all 10 UC campuses.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK YUDOF (President, University of California): Thank you very much, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, first of all, how would you respond to Andrea Ortega, who really can't afford to actually buy food on a regular basis? She uses the food pantry.

Mr. YUDOF: Well, what I would respond is we've got her covered. We have a Blue and Gold program, and if you have a family income of under $70,000, you don't pay any - what other people would call tuition, period. We can't control the whole world. We - you know, housing prices and food prices and transportation, she may be struggling, but the university has really taken care of students. Not only low-income students, but well into the middle class.

BRAND: All right. Well, let's also address the concerns of Bob Samuels. He's a writing professor - writing lecturer, actually.

Mr. YUDOF: Well, I'm familiar with Mr. Samuels' point of view, and he's wrong. All money is not green in the university. You can't take the Lawrence Berkeley Lab money and use it for something else. It's just wishful thinking.

The problem is we get $2.6 billion from the state. We're down from $3.4 billion, and that's the core money for undergraduate education: the Spanish department, the anthropology department, all the wonderful things that we need to do. And we're struggling to come up with the money to sustain that basic undergraduate education.

BRAND: What do you think about this idea that's been floated, separating the top UC schools - Berkeley, UCLA, for example - from the rest of them and making them more like private schools?

Mr. YUDOF: Well, I wouldn't make them more like private. You know, I mean, if you look around, you know, our 10,300 next year is not remotely like Stanford or Princeton.

To answer your question directly, I think everything is on the table to think about. Our backs are to the wall, and I don't reject it out of hand, but I don't endorse it either.

The second thing I would say is if you adopted a plan like that, you would have to have some sort of redistribution. We need to worry about Merced, we need to worry about Riverside and some of the other campuses. A portion of that, whatever income was obtained from that method, would have to be returned to the campuses to help build them into great research universities, enable them to flourish.

BRAND: Do you agree with some people who are worried, some people like the professor who's on our piece earlier, who really worries that in the past, education in the UC system was indeed a lot better than it is today and that it won't get better for a long, long time?

Mr. YUDOF: Well, I partly agree and disagree. I agree that it is worrisome that over the last 20 years, we have half as much money to spend per student. That is very worrisome. And ultimately, that goes to quality issues.

But look at this place. I mean, Berkeley still has huge numbers of top 10 departments. UCLA is one of the great universities. San Diego is a great graduate medical complex, as well as other things.

My job is to make sure that the professor's prediction is not true, that we preserve all these things and continue our growth.

BRAND: That's Mark Yudof, president of the University of California.

Back in 1960, California created the master plan for higher education. It promised that a quality, affordable college education would be available to anyone who qualified, no matter what their financial situation. It's a legacy from much happier economic times or, as some might say, it's merely a quaint artifact.

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