Higher education has jumped to the top rung of issues in California. That’s the good news. The bad news is that California’s three-tiered system of public higher education is badly underfunded with dire consequences for Californians—now and in the future.

Gov. Brown said in his inaugural address that he does not want students to be the higher education system’s “default financiers.” But to avoid tuition and fee increases, the state must do its part. The governor emphasized that the higher education system “through real cooperation among its segments, can well provide what Californians need and desire.” That cooperation must extend to the governor and the Legislature.

Public higher education is invaluable to students and our state, but it isn’t free. Quality education requires talented faculty, classrooms, libraries and laboratories that cost money. What we invest in providing the best possible education for the more than 3 million students in the state’s system of public higher education pays off for all Californians.

The University of California (UC) Board of Regents’ decision to approve a five-year plan of annual 5% tuition increases has drawn a raft of political criticism. The California State University (CSU) system has adopted a new budget plan that doesn’t call for new tuition increases. Instead, it depends on an additional $100 million in state funding that is highly uncertain. CSU has also been taking flack for implementing “success fees” on a campus-by-campus basis

Policymakers in Sacramento, including Gov. Brown, are rightfully concerned about holding down tuition and fees. But the only realistic way to hold the line on costs and maintain a first-class higher education system is to restore an adequate level of state financial support.

The governor and some legislators have expressed concern that too much burden is placed on students and their families, and they have pushed for a freeze on tuition and fees. Many argue that the schools need to employ new technology and do more to cut costs.

Higher education leaders point to considerable successes in trimming administrative budgets and increasing efficiency. They also point out that student costs at California’s campuses are a relative bargain when compared to private universities and comparable schools across the country.

The governor believes that higher education must change to reflect new priorities. He has placed on the table new initiatives, including shorter time frames for completing degrees, more on-line learning, credits for work and military experience and closer alignment to facilitate the transfer of community colleges graduates to UC and CSU campuses. All of these ideas deserve a good, hard look.

The whole debate over tuition, fees and state support for higher education can turn into an opportunity to reflect on what our public higher education should look like in light of new challenges, opportunities and priorities. The Governor’s preliminary Budget doesn’t address the critical need to adequately fund public higher education, but this proposal is just the beginning of the process.  The governor, Legislature and higher education community must come together over the next few months to reach a sustainable funding plan for UC, CSU and the community colleges. One positive development is that the Governor and UC President Janet Napolitano have embarked, as a committee of two appointed by the University’s Board of Regents, on a joint effort to develop recommendations on how the University can more efficiently and effectively address the issues of access and quality.

This debate isn’t about one or two budget cycles, but rather about the role of institutions that are crucial to California economy and its identity as the world’s leading center of innovation and creativity. The governor’s ideas should be taken seriously, but there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment. In the meantime, the governor, Legislature and governing bodies of UC, CSU and community colleges must make sure our campuses have the resources needed to keep up their good work.

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. Please visit yestohighered.org