Insider Edition

UC funding measures the value we place on public education

Janet Napolitano
Janet Napolitano

The University of California is many things to many Californians: an academic treasure, a font of skilled workers, a research engine, a mission, a bargain, a shot at social mobility.

As the UC Board of Regents meets this week in San Francisco to consider a proposal for a series of potential hikes in tuition, however, it’s one more thing – a question. What do Californians want now from their world-famous system of public education? What do we value? Where are our priorities?

This is a conversation we all need to have, and we hope UC President Janet Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown, who is also a regent, will lead it. Perhaps it could start to happen this week, in a way that will allow them to step away from the negotiating postures they have assumed since Napolitano unveiled her tuition plan earlier this month.

Reaching for a way to meet the many demands on the 10-campus system while keeping it accessible and affordable to Californians, Napolitano has proposed raising tuition by as much as 5 percent per year during the next five years unless the state increases its funding.

Brown’s finance people, now drawing up next year’s budget, point out that the UC already agreed to a deal that would net it a modest increase in state funding – the equivalent of a 1.7 percent bump on its overall budget – in return for freezing tuition.

Napolitano says doing it her way will bring stability to the system and allow UC to boost enrollment, add and retain faculty and maintain the university’s generous levels of financial aid. About 55 percent of California students attend the UC for free, and only about one in three pays full fare, Napolitano told The Sacramento Bee editorial board in a meeting last week.

The governor wants the UC to wring more out of the revenue it has now. He’d like more innovation in helping students graduate in four years, more tenured faculty doing more teaching and – because he is who he is – more spending cuts.

At some level, both sides are wagering that their view aligns best with that of the public. And there are pros and cons either way for California.

We like the idea of adding stability and the management benefit of a forced annual look at tuition, for example, and we, too, would like Napolitano to further streamline administration. But we also think the state should give UC more money. California’s long disinvestment in public higher education has gone on long enough.

A report released this month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that tuition has more than tripled during the last 20 years in the UC and Cal State University systems, almost entirely to make up for long-term cuts in state funding.

And where did that state funding go? One answer would be prisons. Now, with criminal justice realignment and the passage of Proposition 47, that priority is purportedly changing. But if there has been a “peace dividend” from the end of the state’s love affair with incarceration, the UCs haven’t seen much of it yet.

Beyond the nickeling and diming, though, Brown and Napolitano raise a deeper question. What, exactly, does higher education mean to California? Where do we want to take our public universities?

For many generations, the University of California has been one of our proudest accomplishments – an idea that went to the very core of what it means to be Californian. Is it still? Do we still want it to be?

Related stories from Sacramento Bee