Clovis News: Sports

State budget crisis aids private colleges

California's budget crisis is creating a business opportunity for private colleges and trade schools in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Students faced with class cuts at community colleges and California State University, Fresno, are finding -- and paying more for -- educational alternatives. It's more expensive, but in many cases it's easier to get into classes and faster to get out with a degree.

Laura Gonzales is one of them. Gonzales, 25, of Fresno enrolled at National University's north Fresno center for a credential and a master's degree in educational counseling after Fresno State dramatically sliced its program. Gonzalez earned her bachelor's degree in English from Fresno State in May.

"I wanted to go back to Fresno State to get my credential in guidance counseling," she said, "but they told me I wouldn't be able to get in, because they denied so many students from the previous year."

Undergraduate fees in the publicly subsidized CSU system have nearly tripled over the past 10 years, and state budget woes created a $564 million shortfall across the 23 campuses.

At Fresno State, the budget gap is about $44.6 million, forcing administrators to cut nearly 1,200 fall class sections -- about 20% of the offerings -- and reduce staffing and close some offices for furlough days. That has the potential to delay graduation for many students.

There's no shortage of alternatives, however. About a half dozen private schools -- some run for profit -- offer baccalaureate programs in the central San Joaquin Valley.

None is cheap, however. Four-year tuition for a bachelor's degree program can cost anywhere from about $32,000 at tiny California Christian College to about $95,000 at Fresno Pacific University.

Larger, out-of-town schools with Valley locations fall somewhere in the middle -- between about $44,000 and $55,000 for a bachelor's degree program, depending on the major.

Most students at private colleges must rely on student loans -- incurring a debt burden that can run into tens of thousands of dollars. That means the decision to get into school quickly can have long-lasting financial consequences.

Fees for a four-year undergraduate degree at Fresno State, by contrast, are about $18,700. But that presumes a student can get the classes needed to finish a degree in four years, and that fees don't rise. Budget cuts and class reductions make both presumptions increasingly unlikely.

Hard-and-fast enrollment numbers for private institutions are difficult to come by. Most don't make their enrollment figures public, but all say they are seeing increases in the Valley.

Collegiate options

Budget woes at state-subsidized California State University, Fresno are creating business opportunities for private schools that offer bachelor's degrees or higher in the central San Joaquin Valley.

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Representatives say at least some of it may be because of the woes at Fresno State. But, they add, other factors are likely at play as well, including more students returning to the classroom to make themselves more marketable to employers in the recession.

Denise Benavides and Christopher Salazar, both 19, said they considered Fresno State but chose for-profit DeVry University -- not because of budget problems, but because accelerated degree programs will get them into the work force more quickly.

"We hear some of our students say they're coming here because their applications weren't accepted at Fresno State or they couldn't get their courses," said Stephen Varvis, vice president for enrollment at Fresno Pacific University. "And some of them are saying now the economy is settling down and they're ready to do something."

Fresno Pacific, a Christian, nonprofit university in southeast Fresno, expected to enroll about 2,500 students this fall -- about 5% more than last year, Varvis said. The university stepped up its advertising earlier this year, increased its opportunities for providing financial aid and student loans, and began offering a four-year graduation guarantee for incoming freshmen.

National University, a nonprofit based in San Diego, has campuses throughout California and Nevada. At both its Fresno and Bakersfield centers, enrollments are 5% higher than in 2007, including Valley students taking classes online, National University spokesman David Neville said.

University of Phoenix and DeVry University, both for-profit private institutions with centers in Fresno, also reported growing enrollment.

"I don't know if we can distinguish whether that growth is because of what's happening at Fresno State, or the recession or anything else," said Joseph Coppola, dean of DeVry University's Fresno campus.

In the South Valley, Brandman University's centers in Hanford, Lemoore and Visalia are growing as well. Brandman, a nonprofit affiliate of Orange County's Chapman University, reports overall enrollment is up 27% over last year in Hanford. At Lemoore Naval Air Station, there are 32% more students, and a 7% increase is reported at its Visalia center.

Officials at Fresno State aren't surprised that students are looking elsewhere because of enrollment constraints and course cuts.

"It only stands to reason that the private schools are going to gain," said Bernie Vinovrski, associate vice president for enrollment at Fresno State.

Fresno State's enrollment is about 21,200 this semester, compared to about 22,000 a year ago.

Private schools are not using Fresno State's struggles as a marketing point.

"We've avoided that specifically," DeVry's Coppola said. Business is business, he said, "but there are too many people in this Valley who need an education for anyone to try to monopolize it."

Brandman University media representative Diana Torralvo said the school is working with public universities to keep students on track for graduation. That includes a partnership with the CSU system allowing students to take classes at Brandman and apply those credits toward their state degree.

At National University in Fresno, director of student services Marie Cheek said many of the questions coming to her office are from students who want to take a class or two to fill gaps in their Fresno State schedule.

"If there's a class they can't get into, they can meet with our advisers, get a catalog description of a class and check with Fresno State to see if it's equivalent," Cheek said. "The last thing we want someone to do is pay a private-university tuition for a class and not have it transfer over."

Time is money

Students who choose a private-university option say smaller classes, better schedules and accelerated progress toward graduation are worth paying far more than they would at Fresno State. Most rely on student loans, scholarships and other forms of financial aid.

"The tuition is more expensive, but I consider it an investment in my education," said Benavides, who is working on a bachelor's degree in technical management at DeVry with an emphasis in criminology. "It's worth it if I can finish a year early and get a job in my field sooner."

"The student loans are a downside," said Salazar, who is studying electronics and computer technology. "But the classes are small, it's hands on, and I can graduate earlier." He will graduate with an associate degree from DeVry in December, less than a year and a half after he started.

Gonzales said her schedule of evening and online classes at National University allows her to continue substitute teaching without missing work.

"I was working two jobs when I was going to Fresno State, but with day classes I had to take a lot of days off," she said. "If I were at Fresno State, I'd have to take days off from substituting and probably lose about $200 a week in income."

Night classes at University of Phoenix also appealed to Luke Sharits, 31, of Clovis.

"Of course, cost is always a big deal," said Sharits, who earned a bachelor's degree in business at University of Phoenix and is now working on his master's degree there.

"I work 45 to 50 hours a week, and going to Fresno State and working full-time just wasn't going to work," he said. "It comes down to paying for convenience, and that's fine."

Overload concerns

Some officials worry about the increasing number of students who can't get into public colleges and universities because of the budget cuts -- and that those students won't be able to afford the higher-priced private alternatives.

"It's my personal concern, and the commission is deeply concerned, about where California's public higher education is going," said Karen Humphrey, executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission and a former Fresno mayor.

"There's concern about the ability of the public and private institutions to meet the state's needs for the future in the current economic climate ... and it doesn't look like it's going to get better anytime soon," she said.

Fresno State's Vinovrski acknowledged that budget crises at public institutions will make it difficult for students to get into classes for at least the next year. And that will continue to present business opportunities for both for-profit and nonprofit private schools.

"Because of cost considerations, many students will take classes at the community colleges as their first option if a class is closed here," Vinovrski said. "But if they find that first option's not available, it makes sense that they'll go to the private schools."

The CSU system expects to continue a policy in 2010 and 2011 of allowing no new enrollments for students returning to college for either a master's degree or a second bachelor's degree, he added.

"Relatively speaking, those students are going to be a lower priority than those who want to get their first college degree," Vinovrski said. "And if they can't get in here, we're probably going to see those people going to private institutions as well."