The State’s coffers are in good shape. The Legislative Analyst projects an $11 billion surplus in 2017-18, including $2.8 billion in discretionary reserves that the Legislature can approve for any purposes. At least half of that discretionary money should be reinvested in California’s system of public higher education.
On November 8, voters approved measures that will provide billions of dollars in additional revenue that will be earmarked for K-12 education, housing and healthcare. Not only was Proposition 55 passed to extend income tax rates on higher brackets, but the voters also substantially boosted tobacco taxes and opened up a new revenue stream with legalization of recreational use of marijuana. Local voters also passed additional sales taxes for transportation and housing projects. This revenue influx should give the Legislature and the Governor room to ramp up the State’s meager investment in public higher education.
Even with some gains in recent years, funding for the University of California and the California State University system has languished far below historic levels. Per pupil State spending for UC dropped from $24,644 in 2000-2001 to $12,709 in 2014-15 according to the Public Policy Institute of California. At CSU the drop for the same period has been from $9,393 to $7,916 per student. Much of that decline in State funding has forced substantial increases in tuition and fees. Tuition is now more than three times what it was 15 years ago at both institutions. And both UC and CSU are considering new tuition increases for the first time in six years. That won’t be necessary if Sacramento decision-makers step up to the plate.
Californians tend to be more upbeat than many other parts of the country. There are those in our state who are struggling to keep their heads above water, but there is much more economic vitality and sense of opportunity in California than is found in industrialized states in the Rust Belt. One big reason for that more hopeful outlook is the growth of California’s creative and innovative economy—a growth that owes a great deal to our system of public higher education.
Sure, there are some outstanding schools in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, but no other state can come close to matching what we have in California with UC, CSU and the community colleges. From the thriving technology industry in the Bay area to the productive agricultural fields in Central California to the entertainment capital of the world in Los Angeles to the bio-technology centers in Orange and San Diego Counties, there is a common imprint of people and ideas that flow from our campuses.
UC, CSU and the community colleges are also critical to nurturing the diversity that is a strength in the Golden State. Our campuses lead the way in educating young people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. The prevalence of students who are first in their family to attend college is particularly heartening.
The California workforce needs more than a million new college graduates in the next fifteen years. There is strong student demand and the opportunity to increase enrollment of deserving California youngsters if the resources are there.
The question is not whether the State can afford to increase funding for public higher education. The question is whether it can afford not to?
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.