Battered by budget cuts

It’s hard to plan when the cost of college keeps going up

“Today Decides Tomorrow.” That’s the Chico State motto. The phrase is on banners and letterheads and even chiseled over the main entrance to Kendall Hall, the stately old building that houses the university administration.

That lofty motto has taken on a specific meaning of late. Namely: If the state Legislature decreases funding to the California State University system today, students can expect a tuition increase tomorrow.

In fiscal year 2011-12, the CSU system has seen its funding sliced by $750 million as the state tries to close its $26 billion budget gap. When $150 million was cut from the system this past November, the CSU Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition by $498 per year beginning in fall 2012. Last month, because of a shortfall in the state’s anticipated revenue, another $100 million was sliced from the CSU’s allotment.

The latest tuition increase is expected to bring in about $300 million, which falls far short of making up for the $750 million cut. According to the Chancellor’s Office, state support is at its lowest level since the 1997-98 school year, but 90,000 more students are now enrolled.

“It is disheartening when your budget is cut by an initial $650 million [in 2011-12], but to face an additional $100 million reduction mid-year makes things extremely challenging,” said CSU Chancellor Charles Reed in a press release. “We were aware this was a possibility, and our campuses have been planning accordingly. However, the uncertainty of the overall fiscal outlook for the state is not encouraging, and the CSU has run out of good options.”

CSU student Luis Galeni hopes to graduate this spring by taking more than 21 units this semester.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

The same press release says the CSU will not make a mid-year tuition increase, but rather take short-term measures to cover the latest cut. However, in the next fiscal year, the press release warns, “extremely hard tradeoffs will be considered, including the possibility of additional cuts to academic programs or further increases in tuition.”

At this point the future is very much tied to whether this November the state’s voters pass Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tax increase. If not, the CSU system is facing another $200 million cut.

Brown issued this statement on Jan. 4: “The stark truth is that without some new taxes, damaging cuts to schools, universities, public safety and our courts will only increase. That is why I will ask the voters to approve a temporary tax increase on the wealthy, a modest and temporary increase in the sales tax and to guarantee that the new revenue be spent only on education.”

Chico State President Paul Zingg says there are too many uncertainties at this point to construct a plan of response to the dire fiscal situation.

“What is for sure is that our priority will be on supporting student success and progress to degree,” Zingg said last week in an email interview. “Even in these miserable budget years, that has happened. With positive results: Average course loads are up, retention rates are improved, graduation rates are increased.”

However, he said, those trends are in jeopardy with increasing enrollment, a reluctance by the Board of Trustees to raise student fees and hitting up limited reserves.

“We’ve tapped some of our reserves and one-time funds, so our options are even more limited going forward through this year and into the next,” Zingg said.

Jeff Logsdon says that while increased tuition hurts the pocketbook, he still appreciates what he’s received during his five years at Chico State.

Photo By tom gascoyne

Course loads are up for a reason. Just ask student Luis Galeni, a finance major from Brazil who arrived here in March 2008. He hopes to graduate this spring, but needs more than the maximum 21-unit load.

“Before I came to the United States, I had a plan to graduate in four years,” he said. “That was all my dad could afford. Now, with the increase in tuition, what used to cost something like $2,000, I’m now I’m paying something like a $3,400 registration fee plus $380 per unit [for out-of-state tuition]. It ends up costing like $10,000 per semester.”

He was on his way to talk with someone in Financial Aid to ask for authorization to take more than 21 units next semester.

“That’s so I can graduate this spring and my dad doesn’t have to pay for an extra semester, because he cannot afford it. I don’t have any choice.”

He said he’s not worried about taking such a heavy load; he took 25 units last semester and said he passed easily. He came to Chico because of an American girlfriend he had in Brazil who was from the Plumas County town of Portola.

“I came to visit her, and she brought me here to Chico and told me how cheap it was to live here,” he explained. “And so this is where I ended up.”

But, he said, things are changing. “I came here because it was cheap, but now …” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

Jeff Logsdon is also a senior and currently in his fifth and, he says, final year at Chico State. The civil-engineering major is from the town of Elverta near Sacramento. He gets financial aid, which doesn’t cover as much tuition as in the recent past. The cost of attending school, he said, has probably doubled since he started.

Photo By Kyle Emery

“You just kind of have to go with it,” he said with an air of acceptance. “I graduate this spring and [have] only four more classes to go.”

He says the university is helping students get in and out in four years.

“I’m happy,” he said. “Times are looking a little better now, I think. I try to look at it as the state already pays for a lot of our education, and we’re just asked to pay for a little more. It’s not easy for everybody, and it’s not easy for me, either, but just I have to live with it.”

Logsdon will be in debt when he graduates, but it won’t be that deep.

“I’ve had loans every year I’ve been here, but I also had a scholarship when I first came. The loans were just enough to cover my tuition.”

He said he’s been fortunate to work every year he’s been in Chico, both on campus and off as a waiter. And he’s enjoyed his stay here.

“I’ve heard of so many people who came here to go to school and then stayed,” he said. “I think that continues to happen, even though times aren’t that great right now. You know, people still get so much from this university and this town.”