As UC Santa Barbara Faces the Higher Education Crisis, Which Path Will Lead to Overall Recovery?

By Sonia Fernandez, ’03


The last few years have not been kind to the UC system. Years of progressively harsher cuts, thanks in large part to the domino effect of the recent economic downturn, have poked permanent holes in the universities' budgets, forcing some difficult decisions as the campuses scramble to maintain quality of education.

“Cuts have been strategic and not across the board,” said UC Santa Barbara Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas. The campus, along with the nine other campuses in the system have had to employ a series of cost saving and cutback measures to fill a gaping budget hole that rose to $650 million in state general revenue funds in the last year.

At the UC Santa Barbara campus alone, this meant the reduction of almost 400 jobs, mostly by attrition, where positions that have been vacated have not been filled. Furloughs and pay cuts were also implemented, with employees and staffers taking on increasingly more work to compensate for the drop in staffing.
As careful as UC Santa Barbara officials have been with the cuts, students still couldn't help but feel the pinch. Tuition increases, fewer courses, larger classes, less assistance is the new reality for today's UC Santa Barbara students. Tighter admissions also means fewer freshman than in previous years as the university, like the others in the system, tries to balance out its reduced budget.

To ease the blow, some strategies have included increasing the nonresident student population, one that has to pay its way through school without the state subsidy provided for California residents.

“We have actively recruited more non-resident students, but the numbers aren't huge,” said Lucas, pointing out a jump in the percentage of non-resident students from 6 to 10 percent. Other measures included finding non-state funding sources for staff to decrease reliance on the diminishing amount of state contribution to the UC Santa Barbara budget. Efficiencies have been introduced to make things easier and more cost-effective, like moving applications and evaluations from paper to online. A new rule limiting the amount of times a student can retake a course will also free up space for those who need to take the course and conceivably, push the student into shaping up or finding another path.

And so the austerity continues, well into another school year. Just a year ago there were already worries that the reductions could be cutting too close to the university's educational mission and the quality of its education. Defunding programs could also put UC Santa Barbara's status as a world-class research institution at risk.

So is UC Santa Barbara slipping? It may still be too early to tell but a glimpse at the university's rankings against others by polls like U.S. News and World Report or Times Higher Education suggest that UC Santa Barbara is still holding its own, in spite of the unprecedented duress of recent budget cuts..

In 2011, UC Santa Barbara ranked ninth among public universities, according to U.S. News and World Report, up from a ranking of 11th in 2010. However in the Washington Monthly, UC Santa Barbara's ranking for 2011 dropped from 11 to 13 in a list of top 30 national universities. Times Higher Education ranks UC Santa Barbara 35th in its World University Rankings for 2011, down from its 29th place in 2010.

The university still has going for it several other recognized qualities, such as its No. 1 ranking among public universities in the nation for the citation impact of faculty research, according to a Thomson-Reuters report featured in Science magazine. It maintains its reputation for research as one of the 61 top research universities elected to the Association of American Universities. Meanwhile, despite budget woes, UC Santa Barbara continues to reach out to underrepresented minorities and low-income students.

“In spite of the budget challenges we face, our priority has been, and continues to be, to fulfill our teaching and research missions without compromising quality,” said UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang. “Ultimately, it is the academic strength of UC Santa Barbara that will enable us to survive and thrive in the face of the current economic downturn.”

Just when the economic downturn lets up in terms of the UC system budget is still unknown, still a moving target. With so much of the UC budget reliant on the state for funding, it's likely that UC Santa Barbara's funding, already cut to the quick, and already having used much of its one-time funding to fill its own holes will continue to drop. For the first time in its history, the UC system this year has received more of its funding from tuition than it has from the state. UC President Mark Yudof aired plans in early November to seek $411 million state funding to avoid another 1 percent tuition hike across the 10 campuses for the 2012-2013 academic year.

And yet, Chancellor Yang points out, the UC budget woes have inspired increased giving, a silver lining in the stormy skies of the UC system budget.

“During this challenging economic time, it is so encouraging and inspiring to us that our campus is seeing a substantial increase in alumni giving, parent giving, and other forms of philanthropic support. We are proud of the progress we have made together, and we are excited and optimistic about the future as we move forward with our fund-raising efforts with renewed vigor and commitment.”

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