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Coffee with Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed

I had coffee this morning with Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, the largest such entity in the nation.

This fall, for the first time in its history, the Cal State system will reduce its enrollment. After budget cuts, there is simply not enough room.

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Current students absorbed a 32-percent tuition increase -- that's in a single year -- although I hasten to add that, even now, Cal State students only pay about $4,000 a year, far less than at comparable state schools in Virginia and Maryland.

The system has lost one-fifth of its state funding in the past two fiscal years, a $625 million reduction from $2.9 billion in fiscal 2008 to $2.3 billion in fiscal 2010.

"We're trying to manage down," Reed said.

To bridge the gap, the system's 48,000 employees took a 10-percent pay cut this year through furloughs -- two full days per month, across the board. The furloughs basically mean everyone had to do the same work in less time, although faculty were allowed to take off six days of teaching, three per semester, by assigning students online work or library study. Furloughs were staggered to allow uninterrupted services to students.

The cuts are historic -- in a bad way. The California higher education system is known as a mighty machine of access. The top tier of students enroll in the peerless University of California system. The second tier, those in the top one-third of their class, can go to Cal State. Anyone else can head to the community colleges, where, after two years of hard work, they can transfer up to Cal State or UC and complete their studies.

A remarkable 60 percent of students enter Cal State on transfers. More than half of the 450,000 Cal State students are minorities. Eighty percent work. One-fifth have families. Tuition rates across the board are among the lowest in the nation.

"We're the most diverse university system in America by far," Reed said. He notes that any one of several Cal State campuses, including Cal State Long Beach and Cal State San Diego, has more low-income students than the entire Ivy League, as measured by federal Pell grants.

But the state's fiscal meltdown threatens to erode those numbers.

The enrollment cuts started in January, when the system closed access to roughly 10,000 community college transferees. They will be allowed in next fall. Another 10,000 students will be cut in September, mostly through stricter adherence to the system's entry requirements. Anyone with faltering grades or a missing course credit is likely to be referred to community college.

None of this has been pleasant, Reed said.

The furloughs? "It doesn't help morale," he said. "It generates complaints from students.

The tuition hike? "They didn't like it. We got a lot of calls."

Yet, Reed says there is hope on the horizon.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed reversing the decades-long decline in state funding to higher education. In the 1970s, Reed says, 10 percent of the state budget was spent on UC and Cal State and perhaps 7 percent on prisons. Today, the ratio is reversed. The governor wants to restore state higher education funding to 10 percent of the total budget by 2014. His spending plan for the next fiscal year, generous toward both higher education systems, is a step in that direction.

"The governor has sent a signal that higher education should be a priority, for economic development and for the public good and to change the culture in California from making expenditures on failure to making an investment in California's future," Reed said.

He notes that UC and Cal State "are the only two agencies that received an increase in their budgets" in the state spending plan. As a result, Reed and UC Chancellor Mark Yudof "have targets on our backs."

Public opinion polls show the California citizenry "is willing to shift funding from prisons to universities," Reed said, "but they don't want to let anybody out of prison, either."

Amid all the turbulence, Reed has proposed an ambitious initiative to raise the Cal State system's graduation rate -- the share of students who finish within six years of enrolling -- from 47 percent to 54 percent over the next six years.

How? Reed says he will focus on simple reforms that pay closer attention to the progress of students: Taking roll in class, and contacting students who don't show up. Mandatory advising, to steer students to the right courses. Pushing out "super seniors," the perpetual students who have the credits to graduate but inexplicably do not.

The initiative coincides with the Obama Administration's goal to regain the global lead in college graduates by 2020. If the president is to meet the goal, Reed said, "it's only going to be through institutions like CSU."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  March 1, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Access , Administration , Admissions , Aid , Attainment , Community Colleges , Finance , Public policy , Publics  | Tags: California State University, Charles B. Reed, University of California  
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