Ah, the Golden Age when California was the Golden State, when the Master Plan for Higher Education enabled its young citizens to get a college degree for a few hundred bucks. Those college grads who went to UC Berkeley or UCLA or any one of a number of CSUs – for what seems today like pennies in tuition and fees – have gone on to create opportunities for the current generation to do likewise.
These days, it’s impossible to hear anyone agree that the Master Plan can work any more. Administrators, legislators, reporters, entrepreneurs – and, yes, even many of my faculty colleagues – sigh deeply, and with a mournful shake of their heads agree that “things will never be the same,” that the ideal of a nearly free public higher education is a thing of the past.
But here’s my question: How do we – the graying-out population with secure jobs and retirement plans, houses and vacation retreats, not to mention millionaires with offshore bank accounts and lawyers to find tax loopholes – have the gall to look at today’s younger generation and tell them what worked for us cannot, and will not, work for you?
Let’s ask the naked emperor the direct and childish question: Why not? What has changed? Why can’t today’s and tomorrow’s college students pay the kinds of low tuition and fee bills that enabled our generation to move ahead?
There is a simple answer no one wants to admit to: We have become a state full of liberals with libertarian consciences. That is, we have eschewed the responsibility to contribute to the public good. We’ve bought into the notion that higher education is a private benefit, so those who get a college degree should have some “skin in the game” and pay for it themselves, and go into debt, maybe for the rest of their lives, to get to the places we may be at right now.
We’ve learned to admire not those who serve the public best but rather those who accumulate great wealth in the financial and tech worlds. These are the very people who then turn around and claim that their half-baked private solutions are what will save the day for higher education, that they have the answers to the dilemma of the rising costs of higher education. And their solutions just so happen to mean more revenues for their own companies, not for the state of California.
So the next time you hear one of your successful colleagues or neighbors admit to only paying a few hundred dollars a year for a college degree during that golden era, ask them why they don’t feel the responsibility to provide the same for the next generation.
Susan Gubernat is an English professor at California State University, East Bay, and secretary of the Academic Senate of the California State University.