Both the University of California and the California State University system are in the process of instituting increases in tuition and fees to help maintain educational quality and keep the doors open to worthy students. Both systems are acting responsibly, but these increases also underscore the failure of the State to do its part in funding higher education.
In the last decade, per student support for UC in the State Budget has fallen almost 40% CSU per student funding has dropped by almost 25% in the same period. UC per student funding is barely a third of what it was 25 years ago. This kind of anemic funding cannot sustain the finest public education system in the world.
California has long benefited from its Master Plan for Higher Education that established a framework for excellence and accessibility at the University of California, the California State University system, and the community colleges. The opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Californians to go to college at minimal cost has fueled the state’s prosperity. It is no coincidence that California now has the world’s sixth largest economy.
Unfortunately, a disturbing trend began in the 1990s. Faced with recessions and fiscal crunches, the powers that be in Sacramento began dipping into higher education funding to close State budget gaps. UC and CSU turned to increases in tuition and fees to fill at least part of the void left by State cutbacks. Both systems have also done a good job of finding efficiencies and implementing belt tightening to reduce cost without downgrading the quality of education. But the reality is that burden on students and their families has increased considerably.
Access has also been a real problem. Community colleges have had a difficult time offering key classes and CSU has had to turn away thousands of qualified applicants. At UC, even many of the most gifted students are denied access to the campus of their choice. California’s public colleges and universities are among the best in the nation in serving first generation students and those from families at every rung of the economic ladder. They are literally engines of opportunity.
The consequences of neglecting investment in higher education are many. California will need another million plus college graduates in our workforce in the next ten years. There is a serious shortfall in our K-12 schools that depend on CSU to train teachers. The research enterprise on our campuses is responsible for important medical and scientific breakthroughs and is a focal point for business development in California. Because there is such a strong correlation between education and income, alumni are major contributors to State and local tax coffers. Much of the cultural life of our communities nurtured by our campuses. We have much to lose if our public higher education system falters.
To their credit, Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature have stopped the hemorrhaging and made modest increases in funding for all three sectors in recent years. That said, it is time for the State to make higher education a top priority once again. What better legacy for Governor Brown and legislative leaders than to reinstate the commitment that has made California’s public higher education system the greatest in the world.
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