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Trigger Cuts Force Cal State Northridge to Impose Unit Caps

CSU's forced to reduce enrollment

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    Cal State Northridge faces a $7 million penalty if it cannot reduce its enrollment by 2,800 students for the spring 2012 semester.

    Cal State Northridge students are fighting for seats in some spring 2012 classes as a result of increased pressure to reduce enrollment through course load limits.

    Special Section: Education Nation

    Faced with a $7 million penalty from the CSU system, Cal State Northridge, a 34,000-student campus, had to find a way to reduce its enrollment by 2,800 full-time equivalent students.

    The solution: impose a 15-unit cap on the amount of credits a student would be allowed to take in one semester and not allow instructors to add students beyond full capacity. Exemptions for adding units would be granted to graduating seniors and a few other small groups.

    The idea was that the fewer amount of units available would decrease the amount of full-time equivalent students. Two students who take part-time classes that collectively meet the unit requirement for a full-time student are only counted as one full-time student.

    Last May, CSU's sustained a $650 million budget cut. On Dec. 13, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the system would absorb another $100 million budget cut, part of the feared trigger cuts imposed after the state failed to meet projected revenues for 2011.

    "We say in December that you can now apply for enrollment; yet students will not attend 'til September of the following year," Mike Uhlemkamp, director of media relations for the CSU chancellor's office said.

    "With that context in mind we have had budget cuts in the past three of four years. We try to cut enrollment to match the level of funding. Campuses are trying to make decisions a year ahead of time but aren't getting their budgets 'til July or sometimes October after the school year has already begun," Uhlemkamp said.

    It's a wild card to know how many students are actually going to enroll versus those who are accepted, Harry Hellenbrand, interim president of CSUN, said.

    Cal State universities are allowed to over or under enroll by 3 percent without penalty according to Uhlenkamp. CSUN is over enrolled by about 6.3 percent.

    The state asked us to increase our enrollment for 2010-2011, then last spring it asked us to lower our target enrollment for this year, Hellenbrand said.

    "Students helped create the over enrollment, more turned up than in past years and stayed in school," said Hellenbrand, adding this was good for students but bad for school budgets depending on state funding.

    Demand for CSU's continues to rise but funding does not.

    "When you look at inflation and the cost at dollars per student capita, this is the lowest level of state funding since 1962," Hellenbrand said.

    Gov. Brown has a tax initiative set for the November ballot. The initiative would increase income tax on higher-earning individuals and increase a small portion of sales tax generating, if passed, revenue principally for K-12 grades.

    The increase will offset the funding needed and allow more funds for higher education.

    The governor's proposed budget for 2012-13 pointed out from 2008-09 through 2011-12, the state reduced funding by $2.65 billion in general fund to the University of California, the California State University, the California Community Colleges, and the Hastings College of the Law.

    "Schools have had to decline course offerings. The governor would like to restore investment back in education with a proposed 4 percent year-after-year increase that would be on top of the general fund spending of the prior year," H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance said.

    If the initiative is not passed in November, CSU will face another $200 million budget cut, representing almost 27,000 students.

    "We would very much like to see this pass for the health of the state and the region. There's a real problem when you produce fewer college graduates, it generates less income for the economy by workforce," Uhlemkamp said.

    According to the Public Policy Institute of California, if trends continue, only 35 percent of working-aged adults in California will hold a bachelor's degree although 41 percent of jobs will require one in 2025. It estimates a shortage of one million graduates by 2025.

    "We're going to accept fewer freshmen than before and it's going to be harder to get into CSUN, especially if you're from outside the LA area," Hellenbrand said.

    At 15 units a semester, a student can expect to graduate in the realm of four years. However, even without the newly imposed unit caps, CSUN first-time freshmen take, on average, 5.6 years to earn their degrees, according to CSUN's Institutional Research's 2010-11 data.

    Hellenbrand was unsure how much of an effect the cap would actually create, estimating it could hold a student back possibly a semester or more.

    Five other CSU campuses -- including Dominguez Hills, San Marcos, Bakersfield, San Jose and Stanislaus -- were also over enrolled in the fall and face a penalty from the CSU, according to Uhlemkamp.

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