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Andy Kroll: The Death of the Golden Dream of Higher Education

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Marianet Tirado, a student at Los Angeles Trade Tech, told the Times that class shortages meant it could take her three to four years to get her two-year associate's degree. Tirado's situation is increasingly commonplace. "It's hard to explain to my mom that I'm trying to go to school but the classes are not there," she said.

The budget cuts have also hit faculty and staff hard. Seventy percent of community colleges said in a recent survey that they'd cut hours for support staffs. On Cal State campuses, the faculty-student ratio has jumped from 21 students per faculty member in 1980 to 32-to-1 in 2010 -- and the same trend can be seen among the system's elite schools, with the faculty-student ratio there inching up from 16-to-1 to 21-to-1 over the same period. As faculty members deal with larger class size, more papers to read, more tests to grade, their pay has failed to keep pace. Salaries for Cal State professors haven't budged from the $75,000 to $93,000 range for the last 30 years. Adjust for inflation and CSU professors earned less in 2010 than they did in 1980.

So where did all that money go? Here's a hint: Look for the men who wear orange jumpsuits, sleep stacked atop each other in triple-decker bunk beds, and each year gobble up an ever greater share of California's ever scarcer finances.

The State's higher education and prison systems are a study in opposites. The prison system saw its state funding in dollars leap 436% between 1980 and 2011. Back then, spending on prisons was a mere 3% of California's budget; it's now 10%. According to the nonpartisan transparency group California Common Sense, the prison population expanded at eight times the growth rate of California's population. In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to immediately shrink its prison population because its treatment of prisoners constituted cruel and unusual punishment. At the time, its 33 prisons held 143,321 inmates (official capacity: 80,000).

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If money talks, then California's message is plain enough: prisoners matter more than students. Put another way: college is the past, jail is the future.

Anger and disillusionment over California's abandonment of its students, teachers, and staff boiled over in 2011. Protests sprung up at campuses across the state. Students shut down a meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents, walked out of classes at San Francisco State, and clashed with truncheon-swinging police in Long Beach and Berkeley.

But the most indelible of these protests unfolded on the campus of UC-Davis, an hour's drive northeast of San Francisco. Student protesters there disobeyed campus rules by staging a peaceful sit-in on a footpath in the campus quad. For their efforts Lt. John Pike, a barrel-chested, helmeted, mustachioed campus cop, doused them with pepper spray. He did so in a manner so nonchalant that it triggered immediate shock and outrage; photos and videos of the incident shot across the globe in meme form. There was Lt. Pike pepper-spraying God in Michaelangelo's "Creation of Adam," soaking the Declaration of Independence in John Trumbull's 1817 painting, feeding the raging flames that swallowed up the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc after he had set himself ablaze in Saigon in 1963.

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A rallying cry for the dozen or so students who occupied that path was the price of an education. In just eight years, tuition at UC-Davis had more than doubled.

Back to School -- or Not?

Rachel Baltazar did not show up for fall classes at Santa Clara University. Without the state grant she'd hoped for, she returned to De Anza for a third year. She's starting a paid internship in which she'll school students in how to better navigate the world of college financial aid. "I want to try to help people understand what their options are," she told me. "I don't want somebody else to be in my shoes. It was so hard."

Recently, Baltazar and a friend traveled down the coast to Santa Cruz. She stopped in a tourist shop, and a postcard on a rack caught her eye. It listed a smattering of facts from 1981, the year she was born. Her gaze settled on one particular figure: Harvard University tuition was then $6,000. The nation's oldest and most prestigious university had cost just six grand. That's $15,206 in today's dollars. She couldn't believe it. At De Anza, Baltazar said she spent $18,000 a year in tuition and living costs.

Baltazar told me that she's still set on getting her bachelor's degree. She'll try again for Santa Clara, and also apply to state schools. She's not picky; she can't afford to be. "I will apply to anybody who will take me and help me pay for it," she said.

Like a lot of young people in California, Baltazar clings to the dream of public higher education, but in her life, as in those of so many others across the state, it's curdling into something more like a nightmare. "I went to school in California because I knew there were more financial aid options, I knew about the Cal Grant, and I thought, 'I should be able to get these things,'" she told me. "In California, the education system is great -- if you can afford it. If you can't afford it, it's kind of a moot point."

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California once led the way into a system of unparalleled public higher education. It now seems determined to lead the way out of it.

Andy Kroll is a staff reporter in D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine. He's the son of two graduates of California's higher education system, and he himself graduated from a public institution, the University of Michigan. An associate editor at TomDispatch, he writes about politics, money, and the economy, and can be reached at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.

Copyright 2012 Andy Kroll

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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