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In the 2007-2008 academic year, California did something it had not done since the 1980s: sent more college students out of state than it received from elsewhere.

For years, the Golden State’s public universities were a draw, offering a low-cost, high-quality education to its high school graduates and drawing talented people from other states and countries. With fees rising and student slots shrinking in the midst of the state budget crisis, some worry that a process that has helped boost California’s economy will reverse itself — and do so at a time when the state’s economy needs more educated workers than ever.

“Absolutely the state is moving in the wrong direction in terms of closing the education skills gap,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California.

Last month, the University of California (UC) regents voted to raise fees by 32 percent, to $10,302 a year for in-state students, in the wake of a $1.2 billion cut in state support to the system. The California State University system saw a $564 million cut, forcing widespread layoffs and reduction of 40,000 students for the coming year.

These changes, in turn, have caused a logjam in the California Community Colleges system — both in terms of new admissions, and students trying to transfer a two-year degree to a four-year school.

“As the other two segments also are stressed, people who would otherwise go to UC or CSU also turn to community colleges,” said Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City. On Monday, Ruskin is convening a joint panel that will review the master plan for California’s higher education systems.

Four-year schools have been making it harder to transfer, including recent changes to give preference to students from community colleges closer to their home campuses. The UC and CSU systems have been raising the GPA needed to get into certain programs and campuses–especially crowded CSUs like San Diego, Pomona, Long Beach and Fullerton–according to Rita Mize, director of state policy and research with Community College League.

Meanwhile, other higher education systems are pursuing California students.

Mize noted that while the number of community college transfers to UC and CSU schools has gone up 35 percent since 1992, transfers to the private University of Phoenix have gone up 450 percent over the same time. Another private system, National University, announced in April that they would waive applications fees and tuition for two courses in an effort to lure community college transfers.

Southern Oregon University recently began offering in-state tuition to transfers from the College of the Siskiyous, College of the Redwoods and Shasta College. Private Hawaii Pacific University recently made a pitch to a gathering of community college officials in charge of transfer student programs.

“We find more and more colleges are coming to California to pitch our students because they know they can’t transfer into UC and CSU because there are no spaces,” Mize said.

But it may also be too early to say what the long term trends are going to be. Applications to CSU and UC closed this week, and early figures show students still want access to these schools.

“Even with the fee increases this decade, we’ve had record numbers of application, including last year,” said Ricardo Vazquez, a spokesman for UC.

Over at CSU, applications are hitting new records. According to spokeswoman Clara Potes-Fellow, there was a 28 percent increase in applications, from 476,000 last year to 609,000 this year. This reflects a record large class of high school seniors, the so-called “Baby Boom echo” which crested this year and will fall in future classes.

Potes-Fellow also noted that people are filling out a slightly higher number of applications per person, so they can “cover their bases.” The total number of applicants to all CSU campuses grew by a smaller amount, 24 percent, from 200,000 to 248,000.

She added that she has seen “no evidence” of students choosing private schools or out-of-state choices. This has largely to do with CSU’s still-low price tag of $4,800 a year, a figure she said still compares favorably to the 15 other systems around the country that are comparable, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

“The only system that cost less is the University of Nevada-Reno, and the difference is $40 a year,” Potes-Fellow said. “I don’t think that’s going to make anyone move from California to Nevada.”

Nevertheless, public higher education in California is still on course to produce slightly fewer graduates, with somewhat more debt, in the coming years. And these things are happening at a time when the state needs more graduates.

“It’s not partisan or advocacy to note that California increasingly has had a workforce composed more and more of college graduates,” the PPIC’s Johnson said. “That’s has been happening for decades.”

But the state has registered a net loss of college graduates annually for many years. Whether this is attributable to cost of living of other factors, the fact remains that the state is subsidizing the education of people who contribute to another state’s economy. The ideal situation, he said, is to recruit people who do most of their schooling elsewhere, come to California for college or graduate school, then stay and join the workforce.

According to an April report he wrote with Ria Sengupta, “Closing the Gap,” California is not producing enough graduates to keep the economy humming over the long term. Thirty-four percent of California workers have a degree, slightly above the national average but well below the 41 percent figure that will be needed for the workforce of 2025, he wrote.

Such shortfalls may be hard to see in an immense system with 2.3 million students that awarded 153,000 bachelor degrees in 2007. The report found that the most efficient way to meet the shortfall would be to allow more people into public colleges overall and to transfer more people from community colleges to four-year schools. This is the exact opposite of what is happening now, but Johnson he is glad people are looking harder at negative long-term trends.

“There is a kind of silver lining right,” Johnson said. “With the downturn in the budget, this is really front page news now.”

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