Officials, students discuss state of higher education

    Elected officials and students joined together in a higher education budget town hall meeting at the Institute of the Americas on May 7. The meeting was scheduled at a crucial time, less than two weeks before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget revision is due.

    State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) and Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) were joined on the panel discussion by State Sen. Don Perata (D-Arcata), State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles), State Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) and several other representatives. The meeting was the fourth of five planned town hall meetings at UCSD sponsored by the Senate Majority Caucus.

    “[The town hall meetings] are designed to provide a dialogue between students and elected officials,” said UCSD Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and panel member Joseph W. Watson.

    According to the Senate’s Democratic leaders, the town hall meetings were created to remind California lawmakers to keep the promises made in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education.

    “California has a history of providing higher education to all students who want to attend,” Kehoe said. “Our University of California and California State University [campuses] produce graduates who contribute greatly to our economy.”

    Panel members discussed Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts, stating that in order to close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, the state of California is considering, for the first time in 43 years, shrinking its world-renowned university systems.

    For the UC system, a total of $360 million in allocated and unallocated base budget cuts will be made. The California State University system will face $299 million in base budget cuts, and the community colleges will be burdened with budget cuts of $236 million.

    However, the representatives did not see cuts to higher education as the best solution to the state’s budget deficit.

    Kehoe said that the governor’s proposed budget would break the commitment made in the Master Plan.

    “We believe that the [proposed budget] will take a bad situation and make it worse, much worse,” Kehoe said. “This is a call to keep a promise that is essential to California’s education promise and economic survival.”

    Alpert pointed out that while cuts to higher education are being made, the budget for California prisons has increased.

    “What a sad commentary on our priorities,” Alpert said. “Budgets are a statement of the priorities of the society. We are on our third round of huge increases and fees — [public university fees] are getting up to the cost of private colleges.”

    California State University trustee Murray Galinson stated that there are currently 400,000 students enrolled in the CSU system and that enrollment is increasing. According to Galinson, the state’s community colleges, which will also face budget cuts, cannot absorb the thousands of students who will be turned away from the CSU and UC systems.

    “To say that CSU has been severely impacted by budget cuts is one of the gross understatements of the year,” Galinson said. “The state is being very shortsighted, since 85 percent of today’s jobs require college degrees.”

    Chancellor-designate of the San Diego Community College District Constance Carroll discussed the proposed budget cuts in regards to the current enrollment surge, stating that hundreds of thousands of students have been denied access to community colleges.

    “Community colleges play a central role in moving our students through the education system,” said Carroll, who also stated that 67 percent of CSU graduate students originally attended community colleges.

    Student attendees, along with State Treasurer Phil Angelides and other lawmakers, including Alpert, sought solutions in closing eight specific corporate tax loopholes that represent a combined $386 million annually in lost tax revenue.

    They stated in an April 27 release that these particular loopholes do not benefit the California economy overall and are unjustified at a time when the state is facing a severe budget crisis.

    According to Angelides and other legislators, by closing these loopholes, the $386 million of additional revenue could avert Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal of eliminating all outreach programs, prevent turning away 21,000 eligible students from enrolling at University of California and California State University, prevent the increase of California community college fees by 44 percent, prevent reducing the eligibility of middle-income students for Cal Grants, avoid cutting UC research funding by 5 percent, and prevent raising UC and CSU graduate fees by 40 percent.

    “We have to look at the ability to raise revenues [through taxes] as well,” Alpert said.

    The statewide Stop the Cuts student network supports Angelides’ plan to close these loopholes.

    While students were pleased with the representatives’ concern for higher education and the proposed budget cuts, some said they felt disappointed that concrete solutions and action were not explicitly considered with sufficient time to enact them.

    “The concern shown by everyone on the panel was sincere,” Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore Whitney Sutterley said. “Perhaps the only fault was that actual solutions or suggestions for how to implement solutions were not addressed.”

    Graduate Student Association Chair Heather Flowe urged the state leaders to make investing in higher education a top priority.

    “Let’s not make a degree only a degree for the rich,” Flowe said. “Education should be a right, not a privilege.”

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