In the wake of this week’s decision by the California State University board of trustees to adopt a $498 tuition increase beginning next fall, Cal Poly students and their parents understandably might ask, “Again?”
And add, “Enough already!”
I don’t relish the idea of putting more of the financial burden on students and their parents; no one does. The reality, though, is that with very little public debate, there has been a seismic shift in public policy that leaves California’s public universities with few options.
In fact, given the magnitude of the state’s cuts, there have been only two practical options: Raise tuition to offset loss of state funding — or let quality swirl down the drain.
Here’s what has happened at Cal Poly, and the tale is similar at the other CSU and UC campuses:
Twenty-five years ago, California taxpayers provided Cal Poly with 90 percent of the money needed for each student’s education; today, the state pays only about 41 percent of the cost of a Cal Poly education. At the level of the CSU, the budget is less than that of 13 years ago, yet the system serves an additional 70,000 students.
In the past four years alone, Cal Poly’s annual state funding has declined by 40 percent, plunging from $150 million in state support to about $89.5 million this year, with an additional midyear cut looming.
These severe cuts threaten all of California’s social and economic well-being. College graduates in general are far more likely to engage in solving society’s issues not only as resourceful professionals, but also as voters, community volunteers and civic leaders. It’s also true that during this economic downturn, college graduates have fared better than non-college-educated citizens. And, as you would expect, college graduates are far less likely to commit a crime or engage in other anti-social behavior. (Tragically, the state now spends more on the prison system than on public higher education.)
California’s key industries rely on Cal Poly and the California State University system to supply well-trained college graduates. Because of our polytechnic mission, Cal Poly is particularly relied on to provide engineers, agricultural specialists, scientists and architects so crucial to so many of California’s industries.
Understanding the potential impacts here and around the California State University system, the CSU trustees have reluctantly approved a handful of tuition increases in recent years.
Even so, tuition hikes are only a partial fix. At Cal Poly, a funding gap of roughly $28 million remains between what the state was providing four years ago and what we receive today after tuition increases.
Further challenging Cal Poly financially is the very nature of our polytechnic mission and the core scientific and technical programs at the heart of that mission, all of which are more costly than traditional liberal arts curricula.
Cal Poly’s history and trajectory of academic excellence also suggest that modestly higher tuition and fees will yield enormous dividends for students and for California, as well as enable us to preserve our “Learn by Doing” approach.
In the face of these needs, we are working to shift our financial model to rely more heavily on fundraising from our loyal base of alumni and friends. We also believe we can do more with our industry partners who benefit from the stream of high-caliber, job-ready professionals for which Cal Poly is renowned.
But this is an ongoing culture change, not an overnight solution.
Meanwhile, the dangers of the state’s massive cuts in its support to Cal Poly are clear and present. So we must ask our students to invest even more in their own futures. If the $498 increase is implemented next fall, Cal Poly’s tuition will be less than $8,600 annually, still one of the best values in higher education. Further proof of that can be found in the fact that despite recent increases, Cal Poly continues to receive about 40,000 applicants each year vying for about 4,500 seats.
As painful as these increases are to current and prospective students, had the trustees not increased tuition, I can assure you that Cal Poly would be a shadow of itself, and “Learn by Doing” would be a hollow, meaningless phrase.
California cannot afford to let that happen.
Jeffrey D. Armstrong is president of Cal Poly.