Viewpoints: California college economics: 2 = 4; and we all lose

Going to college in California these days is a lesson in economics, regardless of our actual majors.

State policymakers have lowered public higher education on their priority lists just as market demands on California’s state college systems are heading in only one direction, up: more people apply, more are denied admission and every seat is filled. Just last year, about 22,000 eligible applicants were turned away from the California State University system.

But one of the most important lessons facing students like me in California today includes the following equations: 2 = 4 and 4 = 6; as in a two-year community college degree now takes four years to complete and a four-year degree from a California State University takes many of us six years.

The time to complete a degree has been steadily climbing and unless some dramatic changes are made, we can expect the trend to continue and worsen. It has real, measurable, dollars-and-cents impacts for students, our families, the state and the California economy – which, in some good news for graduates, is badly in need of more college-educated workers.

For many of us, the lengthening time creates a hidden cost, and one that puts a college education increasingly out of our reach.

According to figures compiled by the Campaign for College Opportunity, the median California associate degree graduate takes 4.1 years and earns 78 credits for a degree that is designed to be finished in two years and with 60 credit hours. At the CSU system, half of all graduates take more than 4.7 years to complete a degree, and the median number of credits has jumped to 135, from the required 120.

That means more years of tuition and fees and more years of living expenses. It’s also more years that we are out of the workforce and not earning the higher salary we expect to bring home as college graduates.

And it adds up fast. As noted in the campaign’s report, an average CSU student who takes six years to earn a bachelor’s degree will spend an additional $58,000 on tuition, fees, books and other expenses, and will earn $52,900 less over their lifetime than someone who graduated in four years.

There are many reasons for the growing time it takes to complete a degree, and much of it is out of our control.

Shrinking resources mean that many of us simply can’t get seats in the courses we need, so we take other unnecessary courses just to maintain our financial aid eligibility. Student support services can be scarce or cut when budgets get tight; consequently, students don’t have the proper information about just what it takes to graduate on time. Furthermore, far too many of us are being placed into remedial coursework that adds to our unit counts and time, but doesn’t count toward our degree.

But there are common-sense steps the state can take to stop and reverse the trend.

Restoring state funding would add classes we need to graduate. And simplifying the financial aid process would ensure that many of us will have the funds we need to stay in school full time.

A reliable funding source for higher education post-Proposition 30 needs to be on the minds of all stakeholders. Let’s face it; Proposition 30 was a temporary Band-Aid on a wound that was hemorrhaging. Decreased state funding has been a trend since the early 1980s, and the problems were exacerbated when our economy hit a deep recession. As our economy improves, we must all work together to ensure that we are not left in the same position we were back in 2007, the year I started college.

I’ve seen firsthand just how the lengthening time to completion is becoming accepted and institutionalized. These lower standards are the new norm. And it is demoralizing to see that the issue isn’t being addressed in a comprehensive manner, which is what it will take to reverse the trend.

I’m a business major with the hopes of getting a doctorate and law degree, looking forward to a career as a higher education advocate. But I’ve already had an education in failing economics and twisted math. And this much I do know: The state of California can do better, and it must do better, and sooner rather than later.