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It was the greatest education system the world had ever seen. They built it into the eucalyptus-dotted Berkeley hills and under the bright lights of Los Angeles, down in the valley in Fresno and in the shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains. Hundreds of college campuses, large and small, two-year and four-year, stretching from California’s emerald forests in the north to the heat-scorched Inland Empire in the south. Each had its own DNA, but common to all was this: they promised a “public” education, accessible and affordable, to those with means and those without, a door with a welcome mat into the ivory tower, an invitation to a better life.
Then California bled that system dry. Over three decades, voters starved their state—and so their colleges and universities—of cash. Politicians siphoned away what money remained and spent it more on imprisoning people, not educating them. College administrators grappled with shriveling state support by jacking up tuitions, tacking on new fees, and so asking more each year from increasingly pinched students and families. Today, many of those students stagger under a heap of debt as they linger on waiting lists to get into the over-subscribed classes they need to graduate.
California’s public higher education system is, in other words, dying a slow death. The promise of a cheap, quality education is slipping away for the working and middle classes, for immigrants, for the very people whom the University of California’s creators held in mind when they began their grand experiment 144 years ago. And don’t think the slow rot of public education is unique to California: that state’s woes are the nation’s.
Rachel Baltazar lives this grim reality. In 2010, after a decade working as a preschool teacher and a teacher’s assistant, the 28-year-old Baltazar went back to school, choosing De Anza, a two-year community college near San Jose. She remembers the sticker shock when she first arrived on campus—the cost per class had spiked startlingly since she graduated from high school in 2000. She would live lean, pick up side jobs, sacrifice what she could to get a degree. "I was willing to be poor and not know if I’m gonna make it," she told me on a recent morning, her roommate’s cat meowing in the background. "I wanted that degree so I could have a better future."
She squeezed twenty units of classes into a quarter (not the twelve to fifteen of the average student). She worried each week about having enough money for rent, books and food. Still, she thrived. She founded De Anza’s Women Empowered Club, won the school’s President’s Award for overcoming adversity, and planned to transfer to nearby Santa Clara University to double major in psychology and women’s studies—until, that is, a state-funded "Cal Grant" fell through.
She met all the qualifications, she told me, but Cal Grant officials informed her that she was too old. The likely culprit, whatever they claimed: the endless state budget cuts that had forced officials to scale back the Cal Grant program. The experience, she said, shook her fundamental belief in the promise California made to its students: "The impression you have is, ‘I do a great job at De Anza and I’ll get to the next level.’ The reality is there might not be a place for you."