A Shove in the Wrong Direction

Sarah Arakaki/Guardian

HIGHER EDUCATION — As a way to combat California’s ever-shrinking budget, beginning in the 2010-11 academic year, on a campus-by-campus basis (including CSU Northridge and Cal State East Bay) several California State University campuses are about to shrink their population of super seniors still nursing their degrees.

It’s a legitimate pressure, considering the schools are under heavy admissions cuts and need to free up some space for other CSU hopefuls. But the measure chips at one of the most admirable fundamentals of the American university: that students be given an extension of time to find themselves and make sure they end up living a life that capitalizes on their strengths.

The new plan attempts to limit the number of students with 144 credits or more by forcing them to file for graduation. More distressingly, students will lose all state and federal financial aid if they go over 150 credit hours — meaning all of the 433,000 current CSU students with over 160 units would lose their aid. For many, that means dropping out.

One can only keep his fingers crossed that the CSU plan doesn’t inspire a similar crackdown on the University of California campuses.

It’s also no mystery why many undergraduates are hesitant to leave behind the comforts of waking up after 2 p.m. and wearing sweats all day to brave the real world, especially when the job market is so hopeless. In 2007, 51 percent of college graduates were able to find a job within six months of graduation; in 2009 only 19.7 percent of graduates could do so. Despite fifth- and sixth-year seniors’ “slacker image,” many are extending their college experience because they decide to pick up an additional major or minor, or decided to change their major late in the game.

In previous years, the CSU campuses received $11,075 per student from the state, but the California budget crisis has reduced funding to only $4,669 per student. In order to absorb its 20-percent budget cut, the CSU system has already slashed enrollment by 40,000 students.

It’s understandable that CSU administrators would want their laggers to just graduate already.

But, if we zoom out, the CSU system is making itself into a robotic boot camp, mechanizing the university to the point of becoming a degree factory — not a place that fosters creativity and risky pursuits in the name of happiness. A liberal-arts pathway that stresses the final degree — not the work it takes to get there — is seriously overlooking the purpose of existing in the first place as an alternative to more technical schools.

Luckily, according to UCSD spokesperson Christine Clark, the new CSU policy won’t be adopted by UC campuses. Instead of kicking super seniors out, they are cutting enrollment of incoming freshmen in the UC system by 1,500 students every year.

While this blow to accessibility should not be taken lightly, there’s a certain level of quality that must be maintained for those who are accepted. As tenured professors are swapped out for underpaid lecturers and TAs, and over-enrolled class offerings are slashed to only the necessities, it’s no wonder unsatisfied students are currently staying for an average of 4.3 years. UC administrators would be wise to prioritize the education of its current students before turning to the extreme CSU proposal, should it arise as a possible solution.

In the meantime, the CSU system could begin with a lesser evil: prohibiting students to declare a second major or change their major by the time they’ve reached 130 credits. This policy would allow students ample time to find the right major, at the same time ensuring that students who are struggling because they just don’t want to grow up aren’t abusing a failing system.

Cutting off financial aid entirely to students who haven’t quite landed in their niche is a roundabout way to boot lower-income stragglers out of the system to make room for a new round of freshmen with plump college funds. Public education was designed to ensure that Californians be provided the tools to get what they want out of life and make the world a better place — and sometimes, that can take more than four years.

Additional reporting by Cheryl Hori.

Readers can contact Margaret Yau at [email protected].

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