The budget crisis afflicting California State University could not have come at a worse time for Berenice Vite and Rafael Curiel, whose son Alonso is a sophomore at Cal State Long Beach. As the university was imposing a 32% student fee hike this year, Curiel underwent two shoulder surgeries and lost his job at a medical equipment firm.

The family has missed three house payments to scrape together tuition to continue educating their son, who does not qualify for financial aid. They are frustrated and worried, and they believe that their voices have not been heard as fast-moving decisions have been made to raise fees, cut enrollment and eliminate programs.

"All of these things are coming at the same time, and I'm really concerned," said Vite, 46, an instructional aide for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "I was raised learning about the importance of education, and I want my children to be educated. But we don't know if we're going to have a house or not."

Vite and Curiel echo the voices of families throughout the state who are being severely tested by the budget cuts at the Cal State, University of California and community college systems.

The fee increases, as well as mandatory staff and faculty furloughs, steep reductions in enrollment (40,000 otherwise eligible students will be turned away in the next two years at Cal State) and elimination of programs and majors have spurred student and faculty protests on many campuses.

But now there is an emerging movement of parents who are speaking out and assuming a bigger advocacy role.

Time for protest

Emma Hernandez, 56, took a page from her younger days supporting the United Farm Workers when she attended a recent rally in front of the governor's downtown Los Angeles office to protest the cuts. Her family is using the equity in its home to help pay tuition for son Tomas Diaz, 22, who attends Cal State Long Beach, and daughter Sonja Diaz, 24, who attends UCLA's graduate school of public policy.

Hernandez's youngest, Cerena Diaz, 17, an Alhambra High senior with a 4.4 GPA, wants to attend UC Berkeley. Hernandez, a retired program coordinator with the L.A. housing authority who is disabled, isn't sure if she and her husband will be able to afford the tuition.

"She tells me, 'Mom, I'm reading about the budget cuts and the enrollment cuts, and I'm not going to get in,' " said Hernandez. The former migrant worker said she and other parents should be role models for the younger generation. "I think it's so important that people get up there and start talking. I feel like the university and state leaders have let us down."

Average undergraduate fees at Cal State rose this school year to nearly $4,900, not counting books, transportation and housing costs, which can add $10,000 more. Basic undergraduate fees at UC next fall will be about $10,302 a year, with about $1,000 in additional campus-based charges; and room, board and books could add $16,000 more. Community colleges increased fees 30% from $20 to $26 per credit.

Critics of the fee hikes fear that more low-income students will be shut out, but middle-income families who don't qualify for need-based financial aid say they are being equally squeezed. Curiel and Vite are awaiting word on their application for a mortgage modification. They are reluctant to saddle Alonso, a pre-nursing major, with student loans. Meanwhile, the couple are waiting to find out if they can make installment payments for spring fees. A payment is due this week.

Bob Combs, president of the parent advisory council at Cal State Chico, is organizing a campaign to contact state lawmakers.

"We elect these officials, we donate money and we are the voice of our children," said Combs, a real estate agent. "If one of us is calling an Assembly member or Congress person, we're certainly much stronger if 10 of us are calling."

Looking out of state

Combs' son is a junior at Chico. But with that campus and others tightening acceptance criteria, he fears that his daughter, a high school senior with a 3.2 GPA, will not be admitted.

The family is considering out-of-state schools, including the University of Nevada, Reno, which offers to residents of California and other Western states a tuition discount that compares favorably to Cal State fees.

"The reason California's public higher education system has been so successful is that it provided a good education for a reasonable price, but that is changing," said Combs.

Steve Maples, director of admissions at the University of Nevada, Reno, said increasing numbers of California students are taking advantage of his school's tuition break; 200 enrolled in the fall and that number is likely is to increase with the budget crisis.