Thanks to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when we were growing up in California we knew that if we did the work in high school there was a place for us in the University of California or the California State University systems.
State policymakers and taxpayers supported a master plan for higher education and were committed to both systems financially, keeping fees low and making access for all Californians a priority. State investment in public higher education was seen as critical to California’s future economic and social success.
Unfortunately, competing budget priorities and circumstances in the last 20 years have called California’s commitment to public higher education into question, and the state is turning away qualified students.
During this time, funding for UC and CSU has followed a boom/bust cycle: Generous state funding increases when times are good, and budget cuts and fees are significantly increased when times are bad. The institutions have managed largely by muddling through in bad times, increasing tuition and reducing access to campuses and classes needed to graduate on time. In good times, our higher education systems were kept stable but cuts were not restored.
This piecemeal approach has kept our systems afloat but is not a sustainable strategy for the future. State general funds which support higher education are growing, but more slowly than in the past.
At the same time, mandated spending pressures from health care, schools and prisons will continue to restrict funding available for higher education. When the next recession comes – and it will – public support for higher education will be more vulnerable than ever.
The now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t boom/bust system has corroded access overall because students no longer know where they stand. If nothing is done to change the trajectory, the situation will only get worse.
While the first casualty has been to student access, the zigzag pattern also produces problems within UC and CSU in terms of managing costs, anticipating and properly paying for fixed expenses and putting more money where it needs to go to pay for student success. The institutions have shifted disproportionately to part-time faculty to handle the workload, it has become increasingly difficult for students to graduate on time and investments in maintenance and repair have been particularly hard hit.
Real, sustained fiscal reform is needed, and there are no silver bullets. The “free college” idea that is getting a lot of play is not fiscally realistic – buying out tuition revenues would cost billions of dollars that quite simply aren’t available.
But the state should not allow state funding to continue to erode. Multiple strategies are needed now to stabilize revenues, manage costs, improve fiscal transparency and create reserves to protect against the bad times.
Only with a sustained financial commitment to the master plan can we regain the public trust and position UC and CSU for future generations of Californians.
From our perspectives as a former director of the state Department of Finance and the head of the Legislative Analyst’s Office for more than two decades, we think the financing of public higher education in California needs a fresh look.
Fixing higher-education finance is not mission impossible. However, change will not happen without a meeting of the minds between state officials and university leaders regarding the elements of the problem and the range of solutions.
We can get there if all sides are ready to give up a little bit to find a better way to move ahead. We still have the best public university system in the world, but it is in trouble.
We need a new path forward, and budget reform for public higher education is a good place to start.
Russ Gould, also a former chair of the UC Board of Regents, chairs the College Futures Foundation, which helps low-income and underrepresented students earn degrees. Elizabeth Hill chairs the council for California Competes, which develops higher education policy. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.