THE BLOG
03/06/2008 03:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

California's Budget Problems Limit College Opportunities

In 1960, Clark Kerr, under the leadership of California Governor Pat Brown, developed the California Master Plan for Higher Education. The plan developed a three-tiered system with specific roles for the University of California, California State University and the community college system.

Recognizing that the baby boom would increase demand for higher education, California politicians and academic administrators had the foresight to develop a master plan that made the state a leader in the field.

The master plan was developed so that everyone who met the academic standards--regardless of economic means--would have the opportunity to attend college. Sadly, the once vaunted master plan is being relegated to "good-old-days" status as budget deficits take a heavy toll on a system that was once the gold standard for the nation.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that thousands of California's potential students could be left out, not because of failing to meet academic standards but rather the state's failure to possess the economic means.

In an unprecedented move, the California State University system moved its admissions deadlines, and as the Times reports, it was at the behest of state officials, causing potentially thousands to miss the deadline and thus not attend school next year.

Midnight on March 1 retroactively became the new deadline for students to apply to seven of the Cal State campuses that traditionally accepted applications months later.

An even earlier deadline, Feb. 1, already has passed for 16 other Cal State campuses.

The reason for the sudden change is the estimated $14 billion state deficit. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's provisional budget for next year calls for $386 million in cuts to the Cal State University system.

Because it is the norm that students apply to multiple schools, the impact of such decisions this year could be minimal. It may inconvenience students by their not receiving admission to their first choice.

Certainly, however, some students will be denied attendance at a four-year institution in the fall. The real impact may be felt down the road.

Is this a path that the state wants to tread? Access to higher education for all who qualify long has been a hallmark for California residents. Is this a value that the state can afford to chip away? Why is it easier to cut $386 million from the CSU system than it is to close tax loopholes that the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates would raise $2.5 billion?

The $150 Vehicle Licensing Fee (the straw that broke the political back of recalled-Gov. Gray Davis) would have raised $6.1 billion. Restoration of the VLF could eliminate the budget deficit in three or four years.

We can talk about cuts in higher education without much ado, but God forbid there be any discussion to revisit the corporate side of Prop. 13.

Higher education should, in my humble opinion, be off the table even during a budget crunch. The state's universal message should be promoting more kids to attend college, not sending mandates to move up the deadline in order to keep students out.

Annual budget stalemates, the requirement of super majorities to raise revenues, term limits, safe legislative seats and an out-of-control initiative process have contributed to our current state of affairs. These are conditions that leave California unable to improve its infrastructure or the quality of its schools -- both of which were once the envy of the nation.

In the context of a $14 billion deficit, $386 million can appear to be a paltry sum. But this is $386 million that goes to the core of what California stands for. Instead of Prop. 13 being the third rail of politics in California, why not the protection of higher education?

That would require the governor and the Legislature to make "real" tough choices.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.