The polls are in, and the University of California dominates—in academics, not football. UC Berkeley and UCLA sit atop the new U.S. News and World Report rankings of the top public universities in the nation. Six of the top ten public universities are UC schools, and all nine UC campuses made the list of America’s best public universities.   UC Merced, the newest UC campus, joined the list for the first time. The University’s excellence should be a source of pride to all Californians, but that achievement is not something that we can afford to take for granted.

Football teams can’t stand on their laurels, and neither can top flight universities. Higher education institutions have to compete for the best faculty and students. They require up-to-date curricula, facilities and equipment. They have to adapt to changing cultural and economic realities, and they have to keep up with the growth in qualified applicants. The incoming class at UC will be the most diverse in history, in the context of the university adding almost 8,000 more California students than last year. All these actions must be accomplished within the framework of increasingly constrained finances.

The miracle is that UC has been able to maintain its high standing and performance throughout the system in the face of decades of reduced State funding. Per pupil State funding is half of what it was in the 1980s.   Despite reduced revenues from Sacramento, the University has kept up its standards through aggressive pursuit of efficiencies and increases in tuition and fees. The reality is that most of potential cost saving measures have been implemented, and continued reliance on tuition and fee increases places too great a burden on students and their families. The State needs to get back in the game in a significant way.

In fairness, the Governor and the Legislature have begun to refocus on public higher education with modest funding increases in the past few State Budgets, but both UC and the California State University system are being asked to accept more California students without sufficient revenue to cover the cost of providing a quality education to these young women and men. Thousands of qualified Californians are not getting into the campus of their choice at UC or the CSU system. Our community colleges are still struggling to meet the demand for key classes.

It may be more than chance that the sharp decline in State support for higher education coincided with the advent of strict legislative term limits in the early 90s.   The Legislature’s focus became much more short-term, and cuts in higher education support were used to fill immediate budget gaps with little thought to the future. Now, the voters have approved a new term limit system that allows lawmakers to remain in office for up to twelve years. The objective of this change is to give legislators the opportunity to look at the big picture and make policy decisions that work for the future. There is no area where this change in perspective is more important than in higher education.

California’s public higher education system is vital to the state’s economy and to the quality of life for new generations of Californians. The University of California, the California State University System and our community colleges will shape the future of the Golden State. Now is the time for the Legislature to begin a serious effort to restore the level of State investment needed to keep our public higher education system on top.

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