California State University officials moved last week to freeze enrollment next spring on most of its campuses and wait-list applicants the following fall unless voters pass a proposed tax initiative in November.
University officials say without more state funds, enrollment reduction is inevitable as CSU deals with the $750 million in funding cuts already made in the 2011-12 fiscal year and prepares for an additional $200 million in cuts next year.
The move increases pressure for voters to approve a tax proposal backed by Gov. Jerry Brown to prevent further "trigger cuts" affecting the state's public colleges and universities. The plan, which has yet to qualify for the November ballot, raises the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years and increases personal income tax for those earning over $250,000 by up to 3 percentage points, expiring after 7 years.
If the tax initiative fails, the 23-campus system will cut enrollment by as many as 16,000 students in the spring of 2013, and up to 25,000 more will be wait-listed in the 2013-14 academic year. Students this fall will be warned that admittance is contingent on the outcome of the tax measure and none of the campuses will make early admission decisions.
Only out-of-state students, who make up over 3 percent of the system's population, will not likely be affected by the plan because they pay higher tuition, officials said.
But tax specialist Joseph Henchman said more problems await the state's public colleges and universities if they plan to rely solely on taxpayer dollars to meet budget shortfalls.
"This can be an opportunity to restructure," said Henchman, vice president of state projects for the D.C.-based Tax Foundation. He recommends charging higher tuition for degrees that lead to higher paying jobs, cutting professors' pay, and hiring consultants "who make their living identifying inefficiencies."
Students, who are already upset about cuts in classes and rising tuition, are speaking up against the enrollment freeze.
"This is just making it that much harder for students and families in California," said Miles Nevin, a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach and executive director of the California Student Association, an organization representing CSU students.
Nevin protested with more than 10,000 students earlier this month at the state capitol in Sacramento over budget cuts and tuition hikes in the CSU and UC systems. In November, Cal State approved 9 percent tuition increase for this fall - the university's ninth tuition raise in 9 years.
While tuition hikes have been unpopular, CSU faces tough decisions. "Nobody seems to like fee increases," Robert Turnage, CSU's assistant vice chancellor for budget, told the Los Angeles Times. "But it comes down to either increasing revenue or cutting spending. Part of what we need to educate the board about is what cutting $200 million entails."
Cal State's proposed enrollment cuts would trickle down to community colleges, said Marina Gonzalez, founder of California EmpowerED, an advocacy group for the state's 112 community colleges. With only eight CSU campuses planning to admit a few hundred transfer students in the spring of 2013, it could cause some students to drop out of college altogether.
"Many students plan their lives around getting to transfer into Cal State schools," said Gonzalez, who has been a campus counselor at four LA-area community colleges. "This will lead to further filling up of community college classes and some students just giving up."
Still, Tax Foundation's Henchman doesn't believe tax increases are the answer to this huge problem.
"Californians can't be expected to foot the bill. They care about higher education, but there's also a limit."
This story first appeared on WORLD California.