California's three-pronged system of higher education, established in 1960 by the Master Plan, was at one time the envy of the world. It was a promise to California's students, even the poorest, that if they did their part, they could attend a top-notch college or university.

Bit by bit, that promise is eroding -- and it's happening in small ways, so that most residents of the Golden State probably don't even notice. Each community college, CSU and UC campus is responding to the state budget crisis in its own way, and each individual response may seem reasonable, if regrettable. Taken together, however, these changes are transforming the state's colleges and universities in ways that threaten California's future.

San Jose State, for example, has announced it will no longer guarantee admission to local students who meet the California State University system's minimum requirements. Those students will get "preference" in the admissions process beginning in 2013, but the change will shut out potentially more than 1,000 kids. It's an understandable response, given that SJSU is preparing for a $58.4 million cut this year alone.

Some kids who are shut out may go to less-crowded CSU campuses, if they can move, but many students -- such as those at Cal State East Bay -- rely on being able to live with parents. Others may attend community colleges, but those schools are also overflowing.


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Most worrisome of all, some students may end up delaying or forgoing college altogether at a time when California is running alarmingly short of the educated workforce the economy demands.

Other schools are also coping with budget cuts by limiting access. The New York Times reported last week that Santa Monica College this summer will begin charging $180 per unit for some highly sought-after classes, five times the usual fee. That will bring in revenue, but it undermines equity. Will only wealthy students be able to take high-demand courses and prepare for the best jobs?

UC Berkeley is raising revenue by increasing enrollment of foreign students, who pay higher tuition. The extra money helps maintain the university's world-class programs, but it means fewer California kids get to participate in them. Generations of Californians have benefited from taxpayer-supported higher education, and they returned the favor by helping create one of the most vibrant economies in the world. Now, as businesses face a shortage of college graduates to help them flourish, that bargain is falling apart.

Students in the UC and CSU systems for the first time are paying more in tuition than the state contributes for their education. Some blame the compensation of administrators as a major factor. Some are undoubtedly overpaid, but that accounts for a tiny fraction of the problem. The outrage over a few salaries distracts from a far larger issue: the increasing privatization of what used to be considered a public good, and the increasingly limited access that implies.

California's economy depends on its residents understanding the implications of this profound change.