Californians Value Public Higher Education

Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine
Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education. Ackerman is a former California State Senator and Assemblyman, and Levine is a former U.S. Congressman and State Assemblyman.

Californians recognize the high quality of education provided by our public colleges and universities, but most Californians want college education to be more affordable.  The way to do that is for the State to restore the cuts that have been made in public higher education funding over the past four decades.

A new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 56 percent of the state’s residents think that affordability is a big problem in California’s public colleges and universities.  Three-quarters of Californians think the price of college keeps qualified and motivated students from attending and 79 percent worry that students must borrow too much money to pay for their college education.

One major source of the college affordability problem is the State’s pull back from funding higher education.  Per pupil funding is down about 40% from where it was in 1977 for the University of California and by more than 20 percent for the California State University system. Much of the burden for the shortfall in State funding has been borne by students and their families in the form of sharply increased tuition and fees.

We all pay a price for failure to adequately invest in higher education.  PPIC estimates that California’s economy will require an additional 1.1 million college graduates by 2030, when almost 40 percent of jobs will require a college degree. California’s thriving economy is built on the innovations, creativity and productivity of an educated workforce.  Without enough college graduates, the state’s economy is bound to falter.

The positive impact of college education on students’ future earnings is dramatic.  On an annual basis, college graduates earn more than twice as much as high school graduates.  Over their lifetimes, engineering and computer science graduates earn upwards of a million dollars more than those with only a high school diploma.  Those with degrees in business, science, medicine, the law, and liberal arts also earn substantially more than those without a degree.

With all the calls on the State Budget, how can California afford to significantly boost spending on public higher education?  The real question, is how can California afford not to reinvest in higher education.  The higher paying jobs and greater earnings of college graduates produce greater tax returns to state and local government than the cost of providing their education.

The Legislature and Governor have adopted a new measure to eliminate first year fees at community colleges.  To their credit, the Governor and the Legislature, also have begun to increase funding for UC and CSU, although the dollars are not enough to allow these institutions to meet the demand for admission by qualified California students.

The erosion of State support for higher education took place over decades, but we do not have decades to accommodate the young California men and women who want and deserve a first-rate college education.  We don’t have decades to provide the educated workforce needed to maintain our economic vitality.  Piecemeal increases won’t do the trick.  We need a solid commitment for the State to do its share for higher education once again.

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