Over the past year, I have watched my daughter Alexa navigate the challenges and stresses of applying to college. It has been a treat visiting campuses around the country, but it has also opened my eyes to the growing disparity in investment between public and private institutions.
We are blessed in California to have some of the finest universities in the world, with extraordinary UC and Cal State systems and private institutions such as Stanford, Caltech and others too numerous to mention. California’s success in higher education has many origins, but two stand out: The profound investment made by residents, and a healthy competition between public and private colleges.
But after visiting some of the best colleges in California, I could not help but be concerned that there may be a coming crisis in public higher education.
The University of California system has long given all residents access to a high-quality and affordable education. UC campuses are filled with an extraordinary number of students from disadvantaged or underrepresented communities. More than 90 percent of UC’s undergraduate financial aid is awarded based on need, and 42 percent of students are the first in their families to go to college – no small feat for the country’s largest public research university system.
While private universities are doing more to help low-income students – some offering a free ride to families earning less than $125,000 a year – larger public universities are always going to play an indispensable role in ensuring access to higher education. UC Berkeley and UCLA have more Pell Grant recipients than the nation’s top 15 private universities combined.
However, state investment has not kept pace with a steady growth in UC enrollment, now totaling nearly 250,000 students. State funding constitutes a meager 10 percent of UC’s total operating budget.
Simply put, our public universities have been forced to do more with less – a lot less. This can only go on for so long without damaging the quality of education and the standing of California’s flagship schools. Indeed, it is remarkable that the UC system has managed to keep providing exceptional educational opportunities and producing groundbreaking research, Nobel Prize winners and Fulbright scholars for so long. It has also managed to spare graduates from crippling debt; 45 percent of the 2014 class had no debt, and students who did borrow graduated with $5,000 less debt than the national average.
But if state leaders don’t act, our public universities may face little choice but to cap enrollment, increase in-state tuition or accept more out-of-state students – measures that would betray their founding principles.
When Gov. Jerry Brown took office, he took courageous steps to restore the state’s finances, and last year he reached a vital agreement with UC President Janet Napolitano that boosts UC’s budget while freezing in-state tuition for an additional two years. The state Legislature also provided a $25 million increase in state funding to enroll an additional 5,000 students. While this is progress, we will need far greater investment to preserve access to an affordable college education, leading to social mobility and economic opportunity.
It will be exciting for me to see where my daughter will go to school, and I’m sure whatever college she attends will provide a first-rate education. But I am profoundly concerned about the generation that comes next, and want to ensure that the competition between public and private schools in California remains vigorous and produces another century of excellence.
Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat, represents California’s 28th Congressional District. He can be contacted at Congressman.Schiff@mail.house.gov.