If Gov. Jerry Brown wants to convince California voters to take a deep breath, grit their teeth and vote for a tax hike this November, he should spend some time talking about the University of California and the state college system.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed then-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi for a story about UC finances in the UC Berkeley alumni magazine.

While Garamendi, a football star, attended Cal on an athletic scholarship, he still remembered that the UC schools were the Holy Grail of education for kids at rural schools like his own Calaveras High School back in 1962.

A chance to go to a UC school was “the way up, the opportunity to succeed in life,” he said. “And it was free. If you could find a place to sleep and scrounge enough money for something to eat, you could go to the university.”

But fees for California students that were around $200 in Garamendi’s day have morphed into tuition of $12,192 last fall, more than double what it was even as recently as 2005. And that’s not even counting campus fees, much less room and board.

A friend of mine has a daughter who attends a pricey private school on the East Coast, thanks to a generous scholarship. Since she’s back on spring break and headed down to UCLA to visit friends, I joked that maybe she was looking to transfer.

“Nah,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to send her to UCLA.”

That’s a decision that’s being made each year by tens of thousands of would-be students and their parents. And those top students who reluctantly turn away from a too-expensive state college or university and head out of state for their education are a loss California can’t afford.

Earlier this week, trustees of the state university system learned that state funding cuts are going to force the system’s 23 campuses to freeze enrollment and turn away as many as 25,000 students who want to enroll this spring. With budget cuts forcing ever more classes to be trimmed, that once-standard four-year degree is now a five- or six-year degree at too many state schools.

Between 2008 and 2011, more than $2.65 billion was cut from state funding for higher education as California tried desperately to deal with its budget woes. And at the same time the state was looking to trim its Cal Grant scholarship program, student fees and tuition was soaring. Undergraduate fees at state colleges and universities that were $1,572 in the 2002-03 fiscal year had jumped to $5,472 by last year.

Last fall was a landmark for the UC system, and it wasn’t a happy one. For the first time ever, UC received more money from tuition than from the state, which now provides only about 12 percent of the system’s annual budget.

In his budget this year, Brown called for the UC system to get an additional $90 million in funding and talked about the importance of state investment in higher education.

But when mid-year state revenues fell short of estimates, it triggered automatic cuts of $100 million each to the UC and state university system budgets. And if Brown’s tax initiative doesn’t pass in November, they’ll each lose another $200 million from the current year’s budget, with no prospect of getting it back.

It’s not as though the state’s makers and shakers don’t recognize the importance of providing a world-class university education to California’s top students, regardless of whether they have the money to pay for it.

In a radio interview last month, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom called the state’s higher education system a conveyer belt for the talent that California desperately needs, now and in the future.

“Higher education is the reason this economy has succeeded over the last half-century plus,” he said. “We are losing that key advantage.”

More than 50 years ago, it was Jerry’s father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, who pushed for the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which created a pathway for young people from every part of the state, rich and poor alike, to get the best education they could at a price they could afford.

It’s easy for voters to forget just what the state’s promise of a free or low-cost college education meant to the generations of Californians who built this state into the business, scientific and economic powerhouse it is today.

Brown shouldn’t let them.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.