Equity, Interrupted: How California is Cheating Its Future


Today, the California Faculty Association (CFA), an AAUP-affiliate representing 25,000+ faculty members in the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, released a new report, “Equity, Interrupted: How California Is Cheating Its Future,” the first in a promised series. Among its findings, the report details decisions impacting the CSU and its students, and finds that as the number of students of color has increased, public funding for the CSU has decreased.

Here is the text of the report’s executive summary:

The 23-campus California State University system educates a far more diverse student body than it did 30 years ago. But, this report finds that as the number of students of color has increased, public funding for the CSU has decreased.

Or, as one faculty member has put it, “As the student body of the CSU became darker, funding became lighter.”

The change in both the number of students of color and the public funding for these students has been gradual but persistent. It does not arise necessarily from a conscious choice; the decline in funding comes amid a general questioning of funding “public goods” as the demography of the United States has been changing.

But the impact is clear, as this report reveals. California is spending less for each student today, when nearly three out of four are students of color, than it did in 1985 when the majority of CSU students were white.

In too many ways, today’s more diverse students are being cheated out of the education that they deserve and that their predecessors of 30 years ago enjoyed.

We offer today’s students “education on the cheap,” one that may be considered “good enough” for them but that is decidedly less rich than the educational experience the whiter, more privileged CSU students of the past enjoyed.

The facts about key differences for students in 1985 and students in 2015—who they are and what they get—reveal a hidden picture of inequity that must be faced and that should be changed.

The report begins by evoking California’s pioneering 1960s Master Plan for Higher Education.  That plan’s “promise was simple. All qualified Californians would have a place in college; higher education would be accessible to all. The California State University, which is the focus of this paper, offered students in the top one-third of high school graduating classes a place in the public university and provided community college students with a place to transfer after finishing their first two years.  It was to be tuition-free, with minimal related fees, and at a quality of instruction that would properly prepare students, let them build their skills, broaden their horizons, and generally improve their life chances.”

“For decades,” the report continues, “California delivered on that promise to millions of California’s students. Today, that promise has been broken.  It is not complicated to see. State funding for today’s California State University students is a fraction of what it was for students just 30 years ago in 1985. In real dollars, state spending on a CSU student today—what in budget-speak is called a full-time equivalent student—is 59 cents for every dollar that the state invested per student in 1985.  Another way to say it is that, when adjusted for inflation, California spends 41 percent less on a CSU student today than we did in 1985.”

What has changed?  “Why is this generation of CSU students being asked to accept a much more limited educational opportunity?” the report asks.

Today, the majority of the CSU student body are students of color, and a large proportion of these students work long hours to pay their way through school.  Moreover, an unprecedented number of students support dependents of their own while they themselves are in school.  When we cut through all the changes in the demography of California, in the state’s economy, in the jobs market and so on, we come to the simple fact that is impossible to ignore: as a faculty member testified at a State Assembly hearing in October 2016, “As the student body of the CSU became darker, funding became lighter.”

As the report demonstrates, in 1985, 63% of the CSU student body identified as white, and only 27% identified with another ethnic group.  By 2015, that pattern had essentially reversed, with 26% of students identifying as white and 62% of students identifying themselves as belonging to another ethnic group.  “This makes the CSU one of the most ethnically heterogeneous state higher education systems in the country and a leader in many national measures of diversity:

  • Of the top 20 most diverse colleges in the western region of the United States, 10 are CSU campuses.
  • Eighteen of the 23 CSUs are currently recognized by the Department of Education as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), colleges and universities with a Latino student enrollment of at least 25 percent.

“The CSU provides more than half of all undergraduate degrees granted to California’s Latino, African American, and Native American students.”

CSU students, the report continues, face daunting economic challenges.  In 2015, more than half of the CSU’s nearly 475,000 students (54%) received Pell grants, almost double since 1993.  “A recent study commissioned by the CSU Chancellor’s Office found that one in 10 CSU students today is homeless and one in five does not always have enough food.”

The report puts faces on those numbers with vivid portraits of individual CSU students struggling to survive, learn, and graduate.

Yet, the report demonstrates, while there are far more CSU students than ever before and those students are in greater need than ever before, state funding has steadily declined.

Consider these facts:

  • The CSU had over 150,000 MORE students (full-time equivalent) in 2015 than it had in 1985 for a student body increase of 64% over those 30 years.
  • But the CSU budget has not grown at the same rate. In fact, the CSU funding from the state actually declined by 2.9% in real dollars over those 30 years.

Massive tuition increases over the last 30 years have not made up the difference. State funding and tuition increases combined have only increased CSU funds by 41.5% in real dollars since 1985, still a considerable lag behind the 64% increase in students.  In other words, if the CSU today had resources (state funding plus tuition) comparable to 1985, it would have more than $773 million extra dollars in its operating budget to serve today’s students.  From these facts alone, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that today’s more diverse students are being shortchanged.

“Can California afford to do better?” the report asks.  “Wealth in the state is actually greater now than 30 years ago when the CSU was being funded more adequately. Average per capita personal income, for example, grew substantially in real dollars over the last 30 years—from $38,241 in 1985 to $52,651 in 2015.  If investments in the CSU had been made in line with that increased income, we should have seen significant increases in state funding for the CSU.  But we didn’t. . .  state funding per CSU student actually declined as per capita personal income in the state went up.

“The reality is simple—not only are we failing to fund the CSU in line with past levels; we are also not funding the CSU in line with California’s actual, current wealth.”

As a result, today’s CSU students are getting less while paying more.  Consider just this one finding of the report: “although 50 years of research demonstrates that interaction with faculty improves student success for all students, especially for first-generation college students and students of color, the fact is that today’s students have less chance for that interaction than did their peers 30 years ago.”  Specifically, “system-wide, there are 157,448 more students in the CSU today than there were in 1985. However, there are 276 fewer full-time-equivalent permanent instructional faculty today to mentor them, to teach their classes, to supervise their projects, and to develop their programs than there were in 1985.”

“Effective educational policy is often impossible when resources are inadequate,” the report contends.

For example, the current CSU administration’s push for students to graduate within four to six years is too often leading to policies fraught with complications and negative—if unintended—consequences for students like those who attend the CSU. While helping today’s CSU students graduate is a laudable goal—even an obligation—of the government and the university, the reasons CSU students struggle with this artificial standard of success should, by now, be obvious. . . .

As with so many issues in higher education, money is a key element in improving graduation rates and closing the achievement gaps that exist for some ethnic groups.  But better funding for universities or more financial support for students is rarely proposed.

Offered instead are educational policy suggestions that either tinker around the edges (better tracking and “early-alert” systems) or that are actually harmful to today’s students.

For instance, a common policy recommendation has been to structure fee schedules to “incentivize” full-time enrollment by making the cost per unit higher for students who are not taking a full-load. While such an action might demonstrate that “something” is being done to improve graduation rates, it would actually harm students who simply don’t have days long enough or the resources needed to go to school “full-time.” Making them pay (from already strained resources) for the fact that their lives can’t accommodate full-time enrollment is anything but helpful. . . .

Instead of defining “timely graduation” in a way that makes today’s students feel like laggards or failures, we should be lauding them for the extraordinary effort and persistence it takes for them to graduate at all and working on real policy and fiscal solutions that would make it easier for them to do so.

To state the obvious, CSU students can’t wave a magic wand and change the realities of their lives; but state and system-wide leaders can provide funding and craft educational policy that is more in line with the needs of the people they are supposed to be serving.

The report concludes:

Everything about the demographic projections of the CSU student body and the future face of the state as whole suggest that the CSU will be one of the most important pathways for greater prosperity and human development for California in the coming decades. And it must be; for if people who come from backgrounds like those of CSU students do not do well in the future, it is hard to imagine how the state can.

We, thus, stand at a pivotal moment in deciding our future. We can ignore the facts showing that educational equity is declining and disparities by race and income widening, but the price of that denial is high. As Robert Shireman has put it, “This blemish—more like a  blight, really—threatens not only America’s self-image as the land of opportunity, but undermines our nation’s civic health. A country in which the wealthy and powerful pass their privilege down to their offspring, leaving everyone else behind, is an aristocracy, not a democracy.”

We can head further down this path, or we can do as California has done in the past: rather than follow the rest of the country, we can—once again—take in the lead in higher education and make the commitment to a CSU that is an exemplary “People’s University.”

To download the full “Equity Interrupted” report, which CFA promises will be the first in a series, go to http://www.calfac.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/equity_interrupted_1.12.2017.pdf


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