Next Governor Must Step Up on 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.

California’s acclaimed higher education system owes a debt to many governors and legislators, but particularly two governors who championed the growth and accomplishments of the University of California, California State University, and our community colleges. The next Governor has the opportunity to join this pantheon by restoring the State’s investment in our campuses and embracing a new vision for higher education.

Edmund G. “Pat” Brown’s role is well known.  The Master Plan for Higher Education that defined the role of the three segments was adopted on his watch.  During Pat Brown’s term, new campuses were added to all three systems, enrollment increased, and California became the world-wide model for public higher education.

Former Governor George Deukmejian, who recently passed away, was typically less visible in his support for higher education but made a major contribution nonetheless.  The “Iron Duke” came into office following Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, both of whom had somewhat rocky relationships with UC and the other institutions.

Following the passage of Proposition 13—the property tax reduction initiative—in 1978, UC took a major hit in the State Budget with per student State support dropping by about 20% by the time Deukmejian took office, State financial support for higher education had been waning under the governorships of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown (1.0).  The entire system was at a turning point.

Then UC President David Gardener made his case to the new Governor in a luncheon meeting that also included two of Deukmejian’s key advisors.  The Governor asked President Gardener what it would take to make the system whole.  Governor Deukmejian heard him out and worked with the Democratic Legislature to boost UC funding by 31% and CSU funding by 21% in the next Budget—a bold move by a fiscal conservative.

State support for public higher education has had its ups and downs in the almost three decades since Governor Deukmejian left office.  Per pupil State funding is about half what it was during the Deukmejian years.  UC and CSU have taken big hits as the State experienced fiscal crises as the economy has had its ups and downs.  UC and CSU funding levels were recovering under Governor Gray Davis, until the Great Recession when the bottom fell out. A considerable portion of the revenue burden for UC and CSU has been shifted to students and their families in the form of increased tuition and fees.

While Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature have gradually increased higher education funding in recent years, this has never been this Governor’s top priority.  His latest May Revise Budget proposal falls some $200 million short of the modest requests made by UC and CSU.  Fortunately, there seems to be momentum building in the Legislature for “full funding” in the 2018-19 State Budget.

Whatever happens this year, there is need for a comprehensive approach to assure adequate, stable funding for all three pillars of California’s higher education system.  Hand to mouth funding cripples our campuses and undermines the need to provide access for tens of thousands of Californians and to produce the educated work force that drives the state’s economy.  Significant increases in tuition and fees won’t provide the answer.  The State needs to step up its commitment.

So far, in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, we have heard talk about free tuition, but no concrete plans to provide the funding needed to enable our campuses to grow and maintain top academic standards, while serving the growing pool of qualified high school graduates.  Higher education needs to be a priority in this campaign and going forward.  Californians are counting on our next Governor to provide new vision and leadership on higher education.

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