Each of us is familiar with our state’s grim economic situation. Indeed, no Californian is unaffected by the financial upheaval we have experienced in recent years. One of the areas hit hardest is one that has the ability to pull us out of this mess: education.

The California Legislature, however, has decided to neglect higher education and the resulting financial burden has fallen on the shoulders of the students, faculty and staff of the University of California, the California State University and California Community College systems. Our governing boards are being forced to make undesirable changes that will devastate the future of California.

The UC system is already saddled with a shortfall of over $637 million during 2009-10 — approximately 20 percent less state funding than appropriated for 2007-08 — as well as a $335 million gap related to increasing costs for which the state has provided no funding over the two-year period. Similarly, the CSU system faces an equally unprecedented budget shortfall of $584 million and CCC spending has been reduced by more than $680 million for 2009-10 fiscal year.

The California Legislature is impairing access, affordability and quality in all three segments of higher education: access, affordability and quality.

Access is threatened. This year, our community colleges will be forced to turn away more than 250,000 students. And where are they to go? UC? CSU? The workforce? None of these is a viable option — for both economic and political reasons. At the UCs, freshman enrollment was reduced by 2,300 students this fall, and options are being developed to further curtail freshmen enrollment. The CSU faces a system-wide reduction in student enrollment of 40,000 in addition to an increase in barriers to students–earlier application deadlines, the requirements of enrollment deposits, and the termination of Spring 2010 admission. These barriers pose increased challenges to educationally and economically disadvantaged Californians seeking access to higher education.

Affordability is threatened. Since the year 2000, student tuition and fees have increased a soaring 215% within UC, 280% within CSU, and 235% among community college systems. These figures are not matched with corresponding increases in education spending. Instead, the California Legislature increasingly places the burden of financing education on students, who must come up with the resources that the state is unwilling to garner.

Quality is threatened. Within all three segments of higher education, student services are being reduced, classes are being eliminated and class sizes are being increased — each negatively impacting the quality of the educational experience. To deal with state reductions, the UC Regents and CSU Trustees were forced to adopt furlough plans, reducing salaries of our already underpaid faculty, staff and administrators and contributing to the potential loss of some of the greatest minds in the world to our competing institutions. Local community college districts are undergoing a similar process in order to reduce the salaries of faculty and staff. The diminished quality of postsecondary education in California is further exacerbated by reductions that force campuses across the state to make dramatic cuts in student services.

Our Legislature has effectively continued to abandon the greatest public higher education systems in the world. Our state has lost sight of the vision of its Master Plan for Higher Education and has significantly threatened educational opportunity and excellence for all Californians. Both the state and our elected officials must be reminded that education is an investment and an engine for economic and social mobility. Our schools have the capacity to foster scientific and humanitarian research as well as to promote service to the state and country. In order for the state to remain competitive, it must reinvest in education.

We hear that it’s just not a ‘political reality’ to get the dollars we need into the classrooms. What that really means is that some of our elected officials are content throwing pity parties while a handful of others stick to their “No New Taxes” platforms. You just wonder what is more important in these times of crisis: an election or our children and college students.

While the state pits our segments against one another economically, today we stand together with a common message. Collectively, we call on all Californians to protect our education and the institutions that drive our economy, culture and everything that makes our state so great. As the 2010 election approaches, partner with us to vote for an affordable, accessible and high-quality education.