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It's becoming harder to get an education in California, even at community colleges

Students, teachers, and supporters demanded more education funding during the March 4 Day of Action

Of the nearly 3 million students attending community college statewide, women and people of color are in the majority, and 80 percent work while attending school. It's still a relative bargain for education, but fees are keeping pace with the rising costs of housing, transportation, childcare, and food.

"I have students who are homeless, who are living in their cars," Berezin notes. "So we can say, oh, $40 a unit, that's not a big deal. But if you're taking 12 units and you have no income — and you don't qualify for financial aid 'cause you don't have an address ... that's a huge amount of money."

Financial aid is available, but with narrow eligibility requirements — and even some of that funding may be headed for sacrifice on the budgetary chopping block. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year proposes suspending new awards for the Competitive Cal Grant Program, for a savings of $45.5 million. About 70 percent of Cal Grant award recipients attend community colleges.

"This award is dispersed according to income and GPA," explained Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy at the Community College League of California. "Many of our students have a high GPA and a low income." Some 22,500 students receiving this financial help would be affected by the proposal — and Tena says more than 150,000 eligible students already compete for the award packages.

Research increasingly shows that students from working-class families are being priced out of college — even community college — and that it's harder to pay their own way without taking on serious amounts of debt. A California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) report found that in 1975, a community college student would have earned well over the amount needed for a year of school, including housing and other expenses, by working a summer job in retail. Today that same student would only be able to scrape together about two-thirds of the needed amount — and that's assuming every single penny was saved.

"In the old days, going to community college was a break-even proposition," notes Adrian Griffin, assistant director of research and policy development for the CPEC. "With stagnating wages at the low end of the job market, it doesn't work this way anymore."

The blow to community colleges caused by a loss in state revenue and consequential budget cuts mirrors the damage done to the entire public education system. While the recession has triggered especially hard times, this low point follows a long-term trend of diminishing state funding for education. In 1965, the state general fund provided $15 for every $1 paid in fees by UC or CSU students, according to the CPEC. By 2009–10, that state contribution had declined to $1.40 for every dollar paid in fees. "We've gone from a taxpayer-supported system to a semi-privatized system," Griffin observed.

This point hasn't been lost on the education advocates at Against Cuts, who are pushing for reform in tax policy as a solution for restoring public education in California. An information packet created by the group highlights a nearly 50 percent decline in the share of corporate income paid in taxes since 1981, even as corporate profits have shot up.

"There is no reason for education to be cut in California, the world's eighth-largest economy," Diaz said. "We can't just continue to accept and accept and accept. Having a population that does not have access to education is dangerous."